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.

Pilot Dance Project Explores The Benefits of Dance Participation

The Centre for Elder Research is conducting a pilot project that explores the benefits of dance participation for individuals experiencing multiple chronic health conditions. Older adults are invited to participate in 12 weeks (two days a week) of complimentary dance classes. The classes will be led by a dance professional who will be providing modified instruction such as seated dancing.

In order to be eligible to participate in the dance program, the older adults must be 65 years of age and older. Both men and women are welcome! Participants must also be experiencing mobility issues and at least two other chronic health conditions.

Classes will run on Tuesday and Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., starting Tuesday, April 4 and running until Thursday, June 22.

If you would like to know more about this program or to register for the classes, contact Kate Dupuis at 905-845-9430 extension 4229 or email Kate at

See flyer for further details.

Guest Blog: Insights Gained From the ‘Aging in a Foreign Land’ Project

My experience as a graduate student with the Sheridan Center for Elder Research. Putting research into practice; insights gained from the ‘aging in a foreign land’ project.

11692654_919804774747277_3969521940614212623_nBy Kristy Webber, B.S.W., RSW., M.S.W Candidate

I knew coming into my practicum with the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research that I was looking for something new, a new experience in the field of gerontology, even though I had previously been working with older adults in the social service field for 15 years. My timing was lucky in that I had the opportunity to be involved with a project from start to finish, which I have been told is quite rare for students. The research I was involved in was a project entitled ‘Aging in a Foreign Land’. This project explored the health and community service use and needs of South Asian immigrants aged 65 and over living in the Peel and Halton regions. This particular project was of interest to me personally and professionally as it involved considerable work with ethno-specific cultures. Having spent most of my career in Simcoe County prior to this, my involvement with different cultural groups was hugely lacking, to say the least.

This community research opportunity provided me with the cultural exposure that I have been longing to experience since becoming a social worker.  I was able to learn about cultural practices, see cultural dress, taste cultural food, and attend various places of worship. It felt like a truly tangible experience; one that I was able to visually see and feel through involvement and participation in cultural practices and community events. It was comparable to the experience of going on vacation and being accepted into a culture and invited into a family’s home for dinner, where inevitable sharing and learning happen in a reciprocal manner. An open and mutually respected learning opportunity that someone can hope to attain during community work with a culture that is vastly different from their own. I felt entrusted with the type of knowledge that results from hearing very personal stories about family life and how people come together to support a sense of community. I learned how the South-Asian cultural experience of older immigrants could be in direct contrast to that of ‘mainstream’ Canadian society. This was demonstrated by the tension that I could hear within stories that spoke of different notions of family, community, and everyday life/living. These differences I learned, could lead to the experience of social isolation, loneliness, abuse, and intergenerational conflicts amongst family members.

Being new to the field of community research, I had my own assumptions about what working in a research environment might look like.  One of those assumptions was that research results could be thought of as being largely disconnected from ‘practice’ or practical issues. This assumption could not be further from the truth in this project.   The outcomes from this research were easily connected to practice as they provided an in-depth understanding of cultural groups that are very different from North American culture, and helped inform ethno specific programs and services in the community. I was left with an appreciation of the importance of maintaining a strong sense of cultural connection while aging in Canadian society. The older adults that we encountered during this project consistently expressed connection to culture and community as an indicator of their overall quality of life. This was demonstrated in a theatrical skit that was performed at a community event by older adults who had participated in this research project. These older adults incorporated a major theme that was an outcome of the research project into their performance. It was a powerful grassroots demonstration of the community further communicating the issues that are impacting their community.

10984144_919803848080703_1378109687807919226_nNow that the project has come to completion, I am left feeling extremely grateful for this community research experience. Grateful to the staff at the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research for accepting me as a member of their team, and grateful to the South-Asian community that I engaged with during this memorable project. This experience has renewed my passion for community social work, and sparked a new passion in community research that I will bring forward with me as I continue in my career with older adults.