Guest Blog: To live is to learn – A lifelong learning journey at the Centre

By Marta Owsik

Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death
~ Albert Einstein







Learning is the lifelong journey of acquiring knowledge or skills. It happens formally in schools and informally through life experiences, family and friends. In July 2015, lifelong learning was officially added as a fourth pillar of active aging to the World Health Organization’s Active Aging Policy Framework.

The Centre for Elder Research has a longstanding interest in lifelong learning and has worked on several funded research initiatives dating back to 2007. We recently completed an exploratory study for which we invited a select group of individuals to participate, as both learners and co-researchers, in 12 weekly sessions.

Participants came from very different backgrounds, were of different ages, at different stages and most did not know each other before the sessions began. Bringing together different perspectives and different experiences led to lively discussions and rich learning. Although Centre staff facilitated the sessions, they were relatively unstructured to allow the process to evolve organically.

First, the study group reviewed and discussed the literature on lifelong learning and came to a few conclusions:

  1. It is clear that engaging in learning is good for people as they age.
  2. While there are many lifelong learning opportunities available, many are formal programs that may not appeal to everyone.
  3. Older adults over the age of 75 appear to be quite neglected both in the literature and by existing lifelong learning opportunities.

The study participants decided that the major problem needing to be addressed was one of accessibility. Those aged 75+ may experience more barriers (external and internal) when it comes to actually accessing existing lifelong learning programs and many programs are not sensitive to a variety of needs, interests and learning styles.

So, study group developed a model for lifelong learning that is truly accessible for older adults of any age, including those age 75+. At its core, their model is one that is customizable, flexible and portable. As such, it can be designed to address an individual’s unique interests and needs, can accommodate a variety of learning styles and can be taken to where the learner is most comfortable, whether that be in their home or at the local library. The group believed that these features could overcome potential barriers and be inclusive for all types of learners.

This lifelong learning project was definitely a journey for the group, complete with detours, bumps and discoveries. Not only did we learn about the subject, we also learned about ourselves, each other, and group dynamics. It was interesting to see how important this subject was to the group members (who, by the way, had the best attendance records the Centre has ever seen!) and how flexible they were in their understanding of what learning is.

“A lot of what I’ve learned…” one participant explained “I didn’t think about it as learning at the time…but as part of living”. I think that sums up lifelong learning and this project quite nicely.

Marta Owsik works as a project coordinator at the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research.


Guest Blog: Dancing through life: Participation in a dance training program for community-based older adults with multiple medical comorbidities issues

By Kate Dupuis

Dance is one of the oldest art forms, with depictions of dancers dating back over 30,000 years. Even if we think that we have “two left feet”, when a favourite song comes on the radio, it is hard not to tap our toes or dance along in our seats. Throughout our lifespan, dance can help us to connect with others, express our emotions, and strengthen our bodies. Indeed, dance has many potential benefits as we age. Research has shown that, as we age, dance can benefit cognitive health (for example, improvements in memory and processing speed when remembering fancy footwork during ballroom dancing, or trying to keep up with the caller’s instructions when square dancing), physical health (increased strength, mobility, flexibility, and balance), mental well-being (reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression), and social well-being (developing connections with others through dance, making new friends, getting to know the instructor). The physical benefits of dance may be particularly crucial for those older adults with mobility issues who may be at a heightened risk of falls. While many communities offer dance programs, these may not account for or provide accommodations for individuals who are experiencing multiple medical comorbidities, including mobility challenges.

At the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research, we are currently conducting a research study in which community-dwelling older adults with mobility issues and at least two other medical comorbidities (e.g., high blood pressure, vision loss) are participating in 12 weeks of twice-weekly dance instruction. The sessions are led by a professionally-trained dance instructor, who has taken the time to understand each participant’s strengths and challenges, and makes specific accommodations for each of the dancers depending on their needs. We spoke with Pat Spadafora, the Director of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research, who said that “the decision was made to hire a professionally-trained dancer in order to capitalize on the extensive repertoire of material from her own training and performances which she can draw upon for inspiration and instruction during the sessions. In addition, professionally-trained dancers understand the biomechanics and anatomy involved in dance, which results in these teachers being able to make a wide variety of accommodations for their participants.” These accommodations are necessary and welcome for our participants.

The dance instructor, Paula Skimin, reports that she has seen remarkable improvements in the participants over the course of the program, including improvements in balance, stability, and “developing a knowledge of their skeleton and skeletal structure, which allows for more stability.” She stated that, from a social perspective, the participants have become comfortable sharing with one another, and that many have cried during class when specific songs have touched them. She has worked to “create a safe space where people feel comfortable to express themselves and to share about their past, present, and future.”

At the end of the 12 weeks, the researcher will meet with each of the participants individually to discuss their perspective on the program. Many of them have already expressed a desire to continue with their dancing. We hope that, with new evidence to support the provision of dance training for individuals with multiple medical comorbidities, we will be able to offer similar programs in the future!

Kate Dupuis is the new Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging at Sheridan College. She studies how participation in the creative and performing arts can serve to enhance the wellbeing of older adults. In particular, Kate is interested in discovering the personal characteristics of individuals who are drawn to participate in the arts, and identifying the physical, psychological, social, and systemic barriers to participation.

Guest Blog: Personal Training Works at Any Age


By Erin Billowits

The traditional image of personal training is a buff twenty-something trainer asking clients to ‘drop down and give them 20 pushups’. The world of personal training has changed in the last ten years to a place with trainers specialized in pre and post natal care, weight loss and active aging to name a few. If you have a complicated health history, low motivation or haven’t exercised in years don’t be intimidated to work with a personal trainer.

A few questions to ask yourself before hiring a personal trainer:

  1. What do you want to get out of the sessions? What are your fitness goals? One of the benefits of working with a trainer is developing and tracking fitness goals. Pick a goal that will impact your life as opposed to focusing solely on the number on a scale. How about training for a trip that you are planning, reducing the pain in your knees so you can walk more or sleep better or trying a new sport or activity?
  2. What personality style do you find motivating? You will spend quite a bit of time with your personal trainer and it is important that you find them motivating and enjoyable to be with. Do you like people who motivate by example, a trainer whose positive energy gets you through the session or maybe a trainer that diligently tracks and reports your progress works best for you. Knowing what style you find most inspiring will set you up to stick with your exercise program.
  3. What is stopping you now? Without judging or blaming yourself spend some time thinking about what is stopping you from exercising now. Is it lack of motivation? Being unsure of which exercises to do? Pain? Your trainer choice may be different depending on your answer.
  4. What could interfere with success? Some days it will be harder to exercise than others but if you think through what could get in your way and plan around it you will break through your barriers to exercise. What happens if it is raining on the morning of a planned walk; your appointment went 30 minutes over or an old injury flares up? A good trainer should ask you what could interfere with your success and plan around it.
  5. What qualifications and references do they have? All personal trainers in Canada need to be certified. Ask to see their certifications and to call a past client for a reference. If you are an older adult make sure that they have specialized training and well as experience working with any health conditions or injuries that you have.

Erin Billowits is the owner of Vintage Fitness, an in home personal training company which are experts in 50+ fitness. For more information go to If you are interested in on-line personal training go to


Winter Walking Safety

walk_like_a_penguinWinter came early in many parts of Canada this year. Freezing temperatures, snow and ice often create hazardous conditions that make it challenging for many Canadians to stay active.

To help you cope with the challenges of winter walking here are some tips from the Ontario Senior’s Secretariat, Canada Safety Council and Women’s College Hospital:

Plan ahead:

  • Keep sidewalks, steps and driveways well lit. Consider installing sensor lights.
  • Spread salt, sand or non-clumping cat litter on walkways to keep them free of ice. Carry a small bag of salt, sand or non-clumping cat litter in your pocket to spread on icy patches when out walking.
  • Carry your personal identification and a cell phone when walking alone.
  • Ask a friend or a neighbour to come along with you.
  • Plan your route. Let others know where you are going and when you will be back if you are walking alone.
  • Give yourself enough time to get where you are going without rushing.
  • Wear bright colours or add reflective material to your clothing.
  • Consider using a cane with an ice pick to help with balance (be sure to change it back indoors, picks can be slippery on hard surfaces).
  • Always replace the rubber tip on the cane before it is worn down.
  • The Canadian Physiotherapy Association suggests wearing the footwear you plan to use while walking when you adjust the height of your walking aid. To get the right height, hold the cane in the hand opposite your weak or injured side to maintain proper arm swing, improve weight shifting, and encourage a normal walking pattern. When measuring the proper height of the cane, stand tall and place the tip of the cane on the floor, approximately 15 centimetres away from your foot. With arms resting comfortably at your sides, adjust the height of the cane so that its handle is level with your wrist crease.
  • Speak to your doctor, pharmacist or local public health department about how to use your cane properly

Be Active:

  • Keep moving in the winter months to stay strong, help your balance and give you more energy.
  • Do indoor balance and stretching exercises.
  • Consider joining a balance and strength class such as Tai Chi.

Wear the Gear:

  • Cover your ears, head and fingers to avoid frostbite.
  • Wear sunglasses and a visor to reduce glare from sun and snow.
  • Dress in layers to stay warm.
  • Wear well insulated, waterproof boots with a wide low heel and a thick non-slip tread. Remove snow from boots before entering a building.
  • Consider a hip protector (a lightweight belt or pant with shields to guard the hips). It can help protect the hips against fractures and give added confidence.

Walking on Ice:

  • On icy surfaces, take small flat-footed steps.
  • Walk at a slower pace.
  • First, slow down and think about your next move. Keeping your body as loose as possible, spread your feet to more than a foot apart to provide a base of support. This will help stabilize you as you walk. Next, keep your knees loose and don’t let them lock. If you can, let them bend a bit. This will keep your centre of gravity lower to the ground, which further stabilizes the body. Now you are ready to take a step. Make the step small, placing your whole foot down at once. Then shift your weight very slowly to this foot and bring your other foot to meet it the same way. Keep a wide base of support.
  • Some people prefer to drag their feet or shuffle them. If this feels better to you, then do so. Just remember to place your whole foot on the ice at once and keep your base of support approximately one foot wide.

Often community services offer help with snow removal and transportation. Contact your local municipality for information.