Developing age-friendly communities is a goal of many cities around the world. First proposed by the World Health Organization the rationale behind this initiative is to better understand and prepare our communities for the growing number of older adults hoping to ‘age in place’ in their homes and neighbourhoods. In 2011, the Niagara Region took up this challenge and established the Niagara Age-friendly Community Initiative and the Niagara Age-friendly Community Network.
Aging and health are complex processes influenced by multiple factors that extend beyond health and medical services. Previous research (PDF available here) highlights 8 domains of city life that are important to an age-friendly community: housing, transportation, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic partnership and employment, outdoor spaces and buildings, community support and health services, and communication and information.
An age-friendly city is one that adapts its structures and services to be accessible to and inclusive of older people with varying needs and capacities. In an age-friendly city, policies, services, settings, and structures support and enable people to age actively.
Like most developed countries Canada’s population is aging. Population aging in St. Catharines, Ontario has become an important issue as a fifth of the population are over the age of 65 and estimates are that this will continue to expand over the next few decades.
The aim of the “Through Their Eyes” Project is to examine the age-friendliness of communities within St. Catharines in order to identify opportunities for making the city more age-friendly and, ultimately, to support the health and quality of life for older residents.
The course instructor met with leaders from the Niagara Regions Age-friendly Community Initiative as well as the Niagara Region Public Health and Niagara Regional Housing to propose the idea of a research project on the age-friendliness of St. Catharines. The response has been overwhelmingly positive; these organizations were not only extremely interested in what could be found through this research, they also believed it would be incredibly useful to their work. This project is an effective way to bridge the gap between generations and foster important community-campus partnerships.
Staff at Niagara Regional Housing agreed to assist with site selection and recruitment. The first site selected was 14 Centre Street –a senior housing residence in the city of St. Catharines –because of the large number of senior residents and its proximity and easy access to the Brock University Campus.
A proposal was drafted and ethics was received from Brock University. Data was collected by 3rd and 4th year Brock University students enrolled in the class Developing Healthy Communities were the researchers for the project. This course is designed to educate students about what makes a healthy community: identifying the social, economic and environmental factors and processes which influence a community’s well-being.
Recruitment was conducted using a purposeful sampling strategy. Initial recruitment was gathered through information sessions with residents of 14 Centre Street. As students completed interviews, participants passed on contact information to other residents interested in the project. Fliers were also placed in high traffic areas (near elevators and in the laundry room) to attract possible participants. Ultimately 17 participants were recruited and assigned to student groups of 2 or 3.
The students contacted their assigned participant to arrange a time to meet. The participants were informed of the project in detail, and consent given to continue with the interviews and for photographs to be taken. Two interviews were conducted with three types of data collected: the interviews themselves, meaningful photographs of the participant and their surroundings, and field notes by the researchers. In the first interview, students interviewed the participant to gain insight on their community’s structures, the common challenges they face, and different strategies to promote health. In the second interview, the students to accompany the seniors through their daily routine to gain a better understanding of the main difficulties they have to deal with, how they have adapted to the city in terms of their ongoing aging process, and what could have been done to make their lives better through their eyes. In both cases interviews typically lasted 1-2 hours.
The data each team collected was uploaded to a secure site for analysis. This includes the 3 types of data: photos, audio recordings of the interview and field notes made by the researchers. Data was organized by participant and researcher team.
Analysis was a 4 step process.
- The first step included the organization of the information by the research team in order to create preliminary findings. This was done in two tasks:
- The creation of key findings, listing quotes from the interview with relevant photos under the 8 themes of healthy communities.
- The creation of a PowerPoint summary of their interviews.
The next steps of analysis were conducted by an analysis team consisting of the professor, the teaching assistant and two students.
- The team organized each individual interview into the 8 themes of age-friendliness (housing, transportation, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic partnership and employment, outdoor spaces and buildings, community support and health services, and communication and information).
- Step 3 was the integration of the individual summaries to identify key findings in each of three areas: strengths, challenges and opportunities.
- The last step was the organization of these key findings translated into PowerPoint presentation format for dissemination.
Health is directly related to the neighbourhood you live in. It is not just the physical environment that is important, but social settings are meaningful to health as well. It is was clear from our responses and key findings that we need to keep in mind the social aspects of neighbourhoods where people live.
Future research will include investigating other neighbourhoods and communities to identify similarities as well as the unique contexts of each site.
For academic researchers and stakeholders interested in engaging in similar work we make the following recommendations:
- Coordinate with community and engage stakeholders
- Highlight community-campus partnerships and provide service-learning resources for faculty
- Fund and recognize community-campus projects
- Make it easy for faculty by ensuring ethics boards and administrative requirements are clear and streamlined
- Flourishing at a reasonable pace: Start small and pilot test the process. Don’t try to change the world in your first project.
- Build trust/rapport with communities in advance: Make sure you have ‘end users’ and those who can make the changes at the table
- Build the projects into your course: Don’t make this ‘busy work’ or a course add-on. Integrate readings, lectures and assignments with the project. Train students for field research; give them the tools they need to be successful. Adopt a service-learning model that includes reflection journals.
- Use the results
- Reach out to universities as partners.
- Offer support: If you don’t have funds to offer, provide in kind support – space for meetings; transportation; equipment; refreshments, etc.
- Make it easy: streamline any paperwork / reduce ‘red tape’
- Be engaged; get involved in the process and stick through it
- Choose appropriate projects and sites/neighbourhoods so the results are useful to you and make sense for the course and students
- Support the work – offer awards, recognition and funds
- Be involved in the process from the beginning (more than just a photo op at the end)
- USE results – make the changes!
Students and seniors
- Be open to learning from each other
- Dedicate the time needed to do the project well and see it through to the end
- Stay mindful and focused