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More than just a health issue: Fostering engAGEment in aging

For the first time in Canadian history, there are more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 14. This massive shift in population means people are living longer, and living healthier.

By Erik Leijon ©2020 Postmedia Network Inc.

In Montreal, Concordia University’s Centre for Research on Aging, engAGE, is working to change perceptions about what it means to age. With Canada’s aging population booming, there’s an urgency to the research, which looks at aging as more than just a health issue or about living longer for the sake of it. Aging today is about living a satisfying life.

“We forget about the diversity of experiences when it comes to aging,” said engAGE director Shannon Hebblethwaite. “We talk about people from age 65 to 100 as if they’re one group. Imagine if we did that from birth to age 35? If we don’t look at them as a single, homogenous group and pay attention to their diverse issues, we can do better.”

According to Hebblethwaite, a lot of work in the field treats aging as purely a health problem in need of solving, but engAGE views aging in a holistic way, where physical, cognitive, sensory, emotional, social and spiritual health all contribute to someone’s overall well-being. The centre also examines environmental, societal, political and financial factors.

“We want to train a new generation of students to think differently about aging,” she explained.

engAGE gathers 32 researchers from 20 different disciplines across the university. What researchers have found is people benefit when they find a meaningful engagement that suits them.

“What are the activities, relationships and community experiences that they get really interested in? That’s where you really see the impact of interventions, if a person can do something that’s meaningful to them. You see positive effects to their physical, mental and cognitive health,” said Hebblethwaite.

Shannon Hebblethwaite Shannon Hebblethwaite © CONCORDIA

To better understand the aging process, engAGE is also looking at how the different facets of aging intersect. Natalie Phillips, professor in the department of psychology, recently published a study with her co-authors that explored the relationship between sensory functioning, such as hearing and vision, and cognition.

“We know that as we get older, our cognitive functions change. We know our sensory functions change as we get older as well. Our hearing declines, for instance. You can explain some of the effects in cognition by accounting for change in sensory function. That’s because your senses are your input into the brain. How we get information is through our senses,” Phillips said.

“What is relatively more recent is our observation that sensory loss places people at higher risk for dementia. The results are clear.”

The next step in their research is to understand why this is the case. The data comes from Year 1 of the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), which studies 50,000 relatively healthy Canadians from ages 45 to 85.

By better understanding this connection between sensory loss and dementia, the potential not only exists to reduce the risk of dementia, but to better equip society to understand the importance and benefits of treating aging people with respect and dignity. After all, aging is something we all experience.

Straightforward behavioural changes could help those with reduced hearing, vision, and mobility get out in the community more easily and get those enriching interactions we all need.

Natalie Phillips Natalie Phillips © CONCORDIA

“Because we know hearing loss has a relationship with social functioning, depression, and physical activity, if we were to treat hearing loss, we could see a benefit for these other factors as well,” said Phillips. “If people understand it’s not just your hearing, it’s the connection between your hearing and other important areas, why wouldn’t we want to support everyone’s sensory well-being?”

A major component of engAGE’s mandate is to reach out into the community and work directly with older people as co-researchers. Creating opportunities for meaningful engagements and activities can help support sensory wellbeing but also allow aging people to socialize in a valuable way.

In January, Janis Timm-Bottos, associate professor in the department of creative arts therapies, and her team of engAGE researchers opened the engAGE Creative Living Lab at Cavendish Mall in Côte-St-Luc, a project funded by the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ). Open five days a week, the storefront is a completely free space where older adults can participate in visual art, music, literature and media projects on a drop-in basis.

“Some people came in first with hesitation, asking questions about what it was, but once we explained, they got very excited. Some people were brought to tears. It was wonderful they felt welcomed into the lab, but it was also sad knowing how hard it is for them to find places where they feel valued,” Hebblethwaite said.

“They have so much they can share with us. The Living Lab is going to be an interesting, innovative place. We’re moving outside the walls of the university and going to where people are that’s accessible to them.”

To learn more about the exciting, interdisciplinary research being done by Canada’s leading researchers, visit Concordia’s Health Hub.

This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Concordia University.

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