Feb. 22, 2019

UCalgary joins Age-Friendly University global network

Network provides framework for actively engaging older adults at the community and university level

In 2009, like many Albertans, Tina Larkin-Black lost her job. After 17 years working as a tradesperson in the manufacturing sector, then 43-year-old Larkin-Black decided it was time to go back to school and build a career around helping others, her true passion.

“I always dreamed of going into a helping field like social work, but I was a single parent and the trades paid better. So I did what I had to do until the kids were grown, and then I had an opportunity to choose what I wanted to do,” says Larkin-Black — one of a growing number of adults who are choosing to pursue higher education later in life.

In a bid to better support mature learners, the University of Calgary recently joined the Age-Friendly University Global Network, a group of higher education institutions that have committed themselves to becoming more age-friendly in their programs and policies.

Being designated Age-Friendly puts UCalgary on the right path to meet the needs of a more diverse community, according to Dr. David Hogan, MD, scientific director of the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging, part of the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

“When people think of universities, they tend to think of adolescents and young adults, but the world is changing,” says Hogan, a professor in the departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences, and a member of the CSM’s O’Brien Institute and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. “There is a need for universities to move nimbly to be a site of both education and relevant research for an aging population.”

UCalgary Provost Dru Marshall agrees. “Universities play a key role in city and community building — and we have a responsibility to make our institution accessible to all.

“We offer a variety of opportunities, programs and initiatives that result in formal or informal learning and discovery," says Dr. Marshall, PhD. "That learning occurs in a variety of spaces that allow people to connect and interact. We strive to provide the physical accessibility necessary for anyone to navigate our campuses — so that everyone has the opportunity to be a lifelong learner.”

Supporting learning across the lifespan

By joining the Age-Friendly University Network, UCalgary has committed to follow a set of core principles, including encouraging older adults’ participation in all aspects of university life, ensuring that the university's research agenda is informed by the needs of an aging society, and enhancing older adults’ access to a university’s range of health, wellness, and arts programs.

The Age-Friendly designation is a step in the right direction for supporting older adults who, like Larkin-Black, make the choice to go back to school, according to Dr. Ann Toohey, PhD, scientific co-ordinator of the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging.

“Baby boomers began to turn 65 in 2011, and with that we are seeing a shift to lifelong learning,” says Toohey, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences. “This is a perfect time to revisit the university’s ability to serve the population and to address its higher education needs.”

Identifying several gaps in the support and services offered to mature UCalgary students, the Centre on Aging has launched scholarships, funding for catalyst projects, and support for postdoctoral trainees.

“This designation will allow us to continue to advance our mandate to both enhance the health and wellness of older adults, and inform public policy around aging,” says Toohey.

A school for all ages

The first day of school is nerve-wracking for any student, but for Larkin-Black, the adjustment period was particularly stressful.

“Being an older adult and stepping onto a university campus for the first time, I was already experiencing doubt and anxiety and everything that goes along with that,” says Larkin-Black. “And I quickly realized that the campus and the classes themselves were set up for younger students coming right out of high school.”

Along with navigating generational differences with her classmates, Larkin-Black also had to work harder to understand the online technology that has become standard in many courses, and she struggled to find scholarships available for mature students.

Larkin-Black overcame the challenges she faced and went on to complete a bachelor of social work, followed by a master of social work over nine years at UCalgary.

And as for advice Larkin-Black has for those thinking of going back to school later in life? “Go for it. It’s never too late to go for that career that you are really going to love.”

The aim of the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging is to improve the quality of life of older persons through co-ordinated inter-disciplinary research and education, community outreach, and informed public policy. First launched in 2011, in 2016 the Centre moved under the umbrella of the O'Brien Institute for Public Health, to build its capacity to serve as an administrative and collaborative hub for University of Calgary aging research and interdisciplinary educational programming undertaken by the faculties of Kinesiology, Medicine, Nursing, Social Work and others as the Centre grows.

The Cumming School of Medicine’s O'Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary supports excellence in population health and health services research, while realizing the benefits of such research by using that knowledge to inform community, policy and health practice stakeholders. The Institute's membership includes more than 500 multidisciplinary researchers from 13 Cumming School of Medicine departments, nine additional University of Calgary faculties, including Nursing, Veterinary Medicine, Kinesiology and Arts; health professionals in Alberta Health Services; and, research users and policy makers from municipal and provincial institutions. As an Institute, we share a vision of "better health and health care," reflecting our two priority research areas of Improved Population Health and Enhanced Health Systems Performance.