Oct. 25, 2017

Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging reframes what it means to age well

Two-day event explores roles that community and policy can play in enhancing resilience in an aging population

One could say that the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging has its work cut out for it. Thanks to factors such as aging baby boomers, dropping birth rates, and improved life expectancy, for the first time adults over the age of 65 make up a bigger segment of Canada’s population than children.

But while population aging may pose challenges, the centre’s academic lead, Dr. David Hogan, points out that aging presents even greater opportunities.

“Older adults play an important role in our society. They have a wealth of skills and experiences, and contribute to their families, communities, and society as a whole in very significant ways,” says Hogan, a professor in the Department of Medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine.

  • Pictured above are keynote presenters Janine Wiles, centre, and Andrew Wister, right, along with Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging academic lead David Hogan at the Resilience in Aging: Exploring People, Places, and Policies event on Oct. 3.

Living well in the face of adversity

Earlier this month, the centre hosted its first event since moving under the umbrella of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. Resilience in Aging: Exploring People, Places, and Policies brought researchers, clinicians, policy-makers and community members together to discuss the multiple factors that determine our resiliency as we age.

Keynote presenter Janine Wiles, PhD, associate professor in population health at the University of Auckland, said that while personal characteristics such as a positive attitude, keeping busy and having a purpose are important, external resources such as social support from family and friends, neighbours and community, as well as access to services and agencies, also play a crucial role in supporting resilience in older adults.

“All of us are driven by a desire to be well and survive the ups and downs we face throughout our lives, but we need supportive environments around us to do so,” said Wiles.

As part of her research, Wiles spoke to an older adult named Mary, who enjoyed being active, but noted that she is careful not to go out when the conditions are potentially dangerous due to winter ice and snow.

“I just stay in. But if the sidewalks are nice and clean, if the city cleans them, then I go out for a walk, I do my shopping,” she said.

Resilience can be developed in all of us

Wiles also challenged the notion that resilience is inherent in some individuals, while not in others.

“Resilience is something that can develop over time, often because of the struggles we experience,” said Wiles, adding that while there may be peaks and valleys, as we age the accumulation of experience, knowledge and wisdom is there to draw upon when coping with challenging situations.

The audience also heard from Andrew Wister, PhD, director of the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and professor in the Department of Gerontology, whose research focuses on the ability to recover and bounce back from adversity – specifically for those living with multiple chronic medical conditions. 

Wister says a better understanding of how people cope with illness later in life, and adapt to these circumstances, will further our knowledge of the social and environmental determinants of health — in turn informing public policy that promotes the health and well-being of a population.

Resilience in older age: What can we learn from older people? Janine Wiles

Promoting healthy aging now

Hogan agrees that when it comes to managing the demands of the rapid growth of an aging population Canada is experiencing, knowledge is power — and that’s where the centre comes in.

“We want to add years to life, but also life to years,” says Hogan. “There is much we can and should be doing to promote healthy aging now, but there is also a need to learn so much more on how to achieve this overarching goal.”

Hogan says the centre’s move to the O’Brien Institute will increase its capacity to support interdisciplinary aging-focused research and education activities in faculties such as nursingkinesiologysocial work, as well as the CSM. Its goal is to see the entire campus community engaged in the opportunities and challenges of an aging society.

“Our presence within the O’Brien Institute gives us an important opportunity to expand our activities in the area of population aging,” says Hogan. “By promoting interdisciplinary research, engaging in a wider community dialogue that must include older adults, and informing public policy in a way that serves the needs of our older population, we will be able to enhance the lives of older people in meaningful ways.”

New University District facility just one approach 

A collaboration with a new state-of-the-art seniors living facility being planned for Calgary’s University District development is just one of the ways the centre is working to support healthy aging.

With a focus on multi-generational needs and aging in the community, the assisted living and long-term care units at Cambridge Manor will take into account individual health-care or lifestyle needs. It will also provide UCalgary researchers and students access to a dynamic research and learning environment within a continuing care setting.

The centre is also collaborating with the W21C, a health-care systems research and innovation initiative based in the O’Brien Institute that studies biomedical innovations. The particular focus of the joint work is on promoting aging in place and exploring the opportunities for health care in the home.

In February 2011, the Brenda Strafford Foundation and University of Calgary signed an endowed gift agreement establishing the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging. Both organizations agreed that the aim of the centre is to "enhance health and wellness of seniors and better inform public policy with regard to seniors’ issues through co-ordinated research, teaching and learning, and community outreach efforts."

The Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging aligns with the University of Calgary Eyes High vision to be a global intellectual hub, the priorities to promote interdisciplinarity and a connection with our community, and four of the six strategic research themes set for UCalgary: Brain and Mental Health; Engineering Solutions for Health; Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases; and, Human Dynamics in a Changing World.