Urban Health & Wellbeing

A society should be judged on how successfully its seniors age

Helping seniors to age well

Urban Health & Wellbeing

A society should be judged on how successfully its seniors age

There are now more adults in Canada over the age of 65 than children who are 14 and under. But while we’re living longer and healthier lives, we’re not prepared — individually or collectively — to deal with the consequences of this fundamental and unstoppable shift in demographics. Among the many lessons the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that we need to take better care of our aging population.

It’s not that we need to find ways to turn back the clock for those in their senior years. A more realistic and desirable goal is to enable more Canadians to age successfully. We can also do more to acknowledge the wisdom and social capital that older adults can contribute. That will require us to recognize and remove barriers that can limit seniors from fully participating in society.

Research and advocacy supported by Ryerson are confronting those and other pressing challenges to create a better future for all Canadians.

Motivation is key to longer mental health

Social scientists and the general public often dwell on negative aspects of ageing. By the middle of this century, for example, seniors will make up 25 percent of the country’s population. There is anxiety — some of it justified — around how such a large cohort will adapt and the stresses it will place on the country’s social fabric.

But there is also an opportunity to focus on the positive potential associated with the greying of our society. For example, when it comes to learning and memory, older adults perform as well as — and sometimes better than — those who are much younger in tasks that are personally meaningful and rewarding.

For psychologist Julia Spaniol, a key question is how we can tap into the motivation of seniors to improve their attention, memory and intellectual engagement. Her work through the Memory and Decision Processes (MAD) Lab at Ryerson includes studying the brain mechanisms that are responsible for the effects of incentive on cognition.

seven researchers smiling at the camera
Julia Spaniol pictured centre with members of the Memory and Decision Processes Lab

“The knowledge we gain from this research helps shed light on how we can motivate people to build mental and behavioural habits that allow them to stay healthy longer,” Spaniol explains. “It also highlights best practices for workplaces that employ seniors, and for institutions that cater to older adults.”

Research in the MAD Lab is currently supported by a combination of government programs, grants and awards intended to promote innovation, but there is an opportunity to partner with other organizations that are eager to contribute to Canada’s leadership in understanding what’s needed for healthy ageing.

Ideally, too, Spaniol would like to build on her work by studying a multigenerational group of individuals over a period of 10 to 20 years. “That kind of study would give us extremely rich insights into the interplay between motivation and cognition across adulthood,” she says.

“Ageing is universal. It affects us all, and so our work is relevant for everyone, everywhere,” she adds.

That said, science shows that some people age better than others. And according to Spaniol, a point that should be added is this: communities in which everyone has access to key resources such as education are those in which more people will age with their sense of purpose intact.

Ageing is universal. It affects us all, and so our work is relevant for everyone, everywhere.
Julia Spaniol, Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Aging, Director of the Memory and Decision Processes (MAD) Lab

Thought leadership for age-related interests is crucial

The effects of Canada’s ageing population are already visible, and how they will continue to be a concern can be anticipated.

Individuals will need help planning for and funding longer periods in retirement. Governments and institutions will need to reassess long-standing approaches to public policy and systems geared towards older people, including those that relate to health care and income support. Employers will need to prepare for an increasing number of people who wish — and need — to work beyond age 65.

Those are just a few of the complex and interrelated realities that a unique Ryerson think tank was created to address. The National Institute on Ageing (NIA), established in 2016, is the only organization of its kind in Canada.

“We work at the intersection of health care, financial security and social well-being in bringing greater awareness and understanding of ageing issues in Canada,” explains Michael Nicin, the institute’s executive director.

Although still young, the organization is clearly making a difference.

During the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the NIA quickly mobilized to create the first and only publicly available online data platform and heat map to track the spread of COVID-19 throughout all retirement and nursing homes across Canada.

a speaker at a podium with panel speakers on stage
Dr. Samir Sinha speaking and Michael Nicin, of NIA, moderating at Ontario Long Term Care Association conference

The NIA’s work showed that Canada’s systems of long-term care are in urgent need of reform, with 80% of all COVID deaths having occurred in these long-term care (LTC) settings – a higher rate than in any comparable OECD country. The Institute, under the leadership of Dr. Samir Sinha, Director of Health Policy Research, also issued a series of expert guidance documents that various governments and LTC providers used to make difficult decisions in the early days of COVID, when evidence and best practices were elusive and evolving.

One such document, which aimed to help families decide whether or not to remove elderly loved ones from care, was downloaded over 10,000 times by people facing a difficult decision in a time of crisis.

Number of times the NIA’s Decision Aids for Residents and Families of Long-Term Care Facilities has been downloaded

“In the past two years alone, we’ve directly influenced public policy in several areas, convened countless experts and stakeholders at Ryerson to drive consensus on various issues, and released or co-released 12 reports, while our public outreach through presentations and media exposure has helped the NIA propel its message far and wide,” Nicin adds.

“We benefit from the institutional support of Ryerson, as well as from its stellar reputation as a leading-edge university with a focus on real-world impact,” says Nicin. “That opens doors to new partnerships and opportunities that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.”

Indeed, in the coming years, Nicin expects the institute will work even more closely with governments and industry partners to generate unique research and insights that will guide sound decision-making as the transition to an increasingly older population continues.

“There’s more work ahead of us than behind us,” he acknowledges.

That’s an understatement. The growing number of seniors in Canada will make direct advocacy, public outreach, convening and consensus-building around their interests — cornerstones of the NIA’s efforts so far — more important than ever.

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