If Pat Spadafora, Director of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research had her way, people would view aging as a time of continued growth and development rather than a time of disease and decline. For over 10 years, she’s lived out this mantra, tackling the largely under-investigated psycho-social aspects of aging while spearheading research that builds on people’s strengths rather than focuses on their challenges.
Spadafora’s roots are in the disability movement. As a high school student, she volunteered at a centre for children and adults with developmental challenges. “It made me realize that I wanted to do something in a helping profession,” she says. Spadafora credits those early experiences as cultivating what would become a lifelong interest in working on behalf of vulnerable populations and a passion for social justice.
After finishing her undergraduate studies in sociology and psychology, Spadafora leaned toward community development and capacity building more than individual counseling in both her graduate studies and social work practice. She was hired by Sheridan to teach in the Social Service Worker Program and after six months was invited to coordinate the program and to develop the Social Service Worker-Gerontology Program.
The next major milestone came several years later. “It was 1999 – the United Nations International Year of Older Persons,” recalls Spadafora. “The theme of the year was ‘toward a society of all ages’. I felt we had a very timely opportunity to contribute beyond vocational training and to become engaged in applied research.”
Spadafora spearheaded a two-day conference to contribute to the celebratory year, bringing CBC’s Michael Enright to Sheridan to do a live broadcast of his show, Aging Dangerously. The conference also featured Doris Anderson, one of the first editors of Chatelaine, Doris McCarthy, one of Canada’s foremost female landscape painters, demographer David Foot, and Don Harron, the comedian, playwright and actor who brought the character Charlie Farquharson to life.
“The need for a focus on aging was so clear. Unless you had your head in the sand, we could all see this demographic shift coming” – Pat Spadafora
With that, the research centre was born. “The need for a focus on aging was so clear,” she emphasizes. “Unless you had your head in the sand, we could all see this demographic shift coming. But it was clear to me that the health and social service sectors and society as a whole were not ready for this coming bulge in an aging population. I felt we had an obligation to address some of the inequities in society and contribute to people being able to live lives that have meaning in their later years.”
The Centre has since completed over 80 applied research, evaluation and design projects that have benefited older adults and their families while creating meaningful learning opportunities for 500 students at Sheridan across 30 programs of study. Its high calibre of work has attracted almost $6 million in government and corporate grants as well as private donations to help fund its efforts.
The work falls under several themes – the creative and performing arts (how participation in these fields contributes to healthy aging), technology to support aging in place (exploring how best to support older adults with personal computing and other technologies), the business of aging (helping small to medium sized businesses to develop new products and services to meet the needs and interests of older consumers) and the experience of aging in a foreign land (helping immigrants stay active and engaged in their communities).
All projects also adhere to the parameters of social innovation, which brings together a mix of people, services and strategies to apply new ideas to resolve pressing, unmet societal needs. The Centre’s research approach is rooted in the concept of reciprocal benefits, in which older adult participants receive immediate personal benefits such as computer training or value-added programming, while the Centre’s researchers learn more about enhancing the quality of life for elders.
As a result of the Centre, new apps and board games have been developed, a consumer panel of people aged 70+ has been launched, and a wide range of research has been conducted. Topics have included everything from the benefits of yoga on quality of life and the effect of dance for people living with diabetes and Parkinson’s, to the relationship between smells and memories, to comparing the computer and iPad in technology tutoring, and understanding how technology can affect manual dexterity.
“After 12 years, I have been told that we’re still the only Canadian college that has a centre wholly dedicated to investigating this area,” notes Spadafora. The centre has also developed strong partnerships with eight universities, which she views as highly complementary. “While basic or medical research might tackle the causes or cures of hearing or vision loss, our work examines the impact of that loss on an individual’s ability to navigate in their environment and be socially included.”
It’s important work considering society’s growing life expectancy. “Today, we’re living until 90 and beyond. If you retire at 65, that potentially means an additional 25 or 30 years of living, which is a long time if you don’t have something meaningful in which to engage, or for you not to be considered a contributor to your community.”
“We’re not saying that people are never going to have any age-related challenges, but through a creative aging or healthy or active aging lens, if we can reduce the number of years in which people have additional challenges, then they can have a higher quality of life for a longer period of time” – Pat Spadafora
Spadafora considers it her mission to get people to look at aging differently. “We need to do what we can to reduce ageist attitudes and make sure that older adults are seen as the valuable resources that they are in our communities.”
Pictured at top of page: Pat Spadafora, Director of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research
Written by: Christine Szustaczek, Director of Communications and External Relations at Sheridan.