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Changing Our Culture of Aging by Building Relationships

May 15, 2017

Building Relationships was an obvious thematic choice for the third incarnation of the RIA and Schlegel Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care’s Culture Change Exchange (CCE), not only because the event drew presenters from Australia, Scotland, the U.S. and Canada, but also because of the content presented.

There was a true sense of collaboration among change agents on a provincial and global scale during the March 16, 2017 event, contributing to a growing network of people around the world who are pushing the boundaries of innovation to reshape societal attitudes toward aging. This is a primary focus of the RIA and the key reason the organization will continue to promote ongoing opportunities for idea sharing and knowledge exchange.

In terms of the content offered by a range of presenters, a full room of in-house attendees and many more following online heard different perspectives on the importance of relationships in the quest to change the culture of aging. For older adults, especially those living with the cognitive and sensory changes associated with dementia, strong, positive relationships with family members, care partners and the community at large can make all the difference in finding meaning in life.

The power of language

Consider the language one uses in addressing an older adult. During her keynote, Daniella Greenwood, Strategy and Innovation Manager with Arcare in Australia, asked the audience to imagine what it must feel like when someone uses childish language to address their elders.

Daniella told the audience about her mother, a caring, generous woman with a gentle spirit and a kind heart. She returned home from her local bakery one day completely out of character; this kind woman who always lived with a positive outlook on life looked into her daughter’s eyes through tears and said: “I’m old.”

“What on earth could’ve happened at the bakery to make you so upset?” Daniella asked.

A simple action and phrase uttered by the bakery cashier as she handed Daniella’s mother her change had unintended consequences. “Here you go, Sweetie,” the cashier said. A simple enough phrase, yet one that would never be offered to a 35-year-old woman in a power suit. It’s a phrase and a tone reserved for children and ‘cute, little old ladies’ and however unintended, when a phrase such as this is offered to an older adult it can be incredibly demeaning.March 2017 CCE Daniella

Language is powerful, whether through tone, gestures or word choice, Daniella encouraged attendees to take ownership of how they speak and act as they build relationships with the elders they serve.

“We can talk about culture change,” Daniella said. “We can have an organization that’s got really lovely values and a glossy magazine and beautiful buildings and a fantastic leadership program . . . but where the rubber meets the road is when there’s a human being interacting with a resident in the real world.”

“This is where culture change lives or dies.”

Dementia and sensory changes

Agnes Houston was another key speaker among the 17 CCE presenters. Diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2006 at the age of 57, Agnes offers a unique perspective as she travels the world from her home in Glasgow, Scotland seeking information and fellowship while advocating for a better standard of support for those who live with dementia.

Agnes spoke about the often-forgotten sensory changes that affect those living with dementia. Most people equate such a diagnosis with memory loss, but the changing brain can affect the senses as well. When she was diagnosed, Agnes explained, all the focus was on memory and none on her changing tastes, her heightened awareness of sound or the confusion a loud room creates. Nobody explained that hallucinations both in sight and scent could be a reality for a person living with dementia. Coping strategies weren’t offered.March 2017 CCE Agnes & Donna

Each sensory change can add another barrier to the relationships that are so necessary in the life of a person living with dementia.

“If you woke up tomorrow and you suddenly couldn’t see, you’d be a bit emotional wouldn’t you?” Agnes asked through her thick Scottish accent. “Just to get a pat on the back and an ‘Aye, that’ll be your dementia, off you go.’ You’re supposed to be able to cope with that?”

Agnes says she’ll never stop advocating for a greater awareness and understanding of these challenges. She helped create a guidebook, Dementia and Sensory Challenges: Dementia can be more than memory, and the insights she shared had a lasting impact on the CCE audience.

If society as a whole can begin to understand the sensory changes facing some older adults while shifting the language of daily interactions to create a more respectful tone that doesn’t diminish the status or experience of elders, then relationships are bound to grow stronger.

Balancing autonomy with risk

Dr. Allen Power, who recently joined the RIA as the Schlegel Chair in Aging and Dementia Innovation, spoke of a third angle to the relationship dynamic that can either enhance or diminish quality of life for older adults, especially when they’re living in a long-term care (LTC) or retirement setting. He spoke of surplus safety and balancing autonomy with risk through a relational approach.

Conventional wisdom today suggests the moment a person moves into LTC they are at greater risk of everything from infections to falls to heart failure. Every team member must remember that these are grown adults capable in many ways of assessing risk and making their own choices. All too often in LTC settings, residents are told ‘no.’ They’ve lived long lives, survived unknown challenges and weathered countless hardships, yet in their latest years, they’re denied the ability to choose to take risk.March 2017 CCE Al Power

“Locked doors erode autonomy,” Al told the audience before borrowing a phrase from his Eden Alternative colleague, Dr. Bill Thomas, who once said: “The only risk-free environment is a coffin.”

Each person’s tolerance and desire for risk is as varied as their DNA, and the only way to truly know what a person is capable of is to develop a strong relationship with them. A blanket policy serving all residents in a LTC setting can sever each individual from what matters most to her or him.

There is risk in all aspects of life and care partners who have strong relationships with those they serve should ask themselves not so much what the risk is but instead, what is the downside risk of doing nothing? To be clear, Al wasn’t advocating for the elimination of safety measures, but was instead suggesting that through relationships, care partners can support residents to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of all decisions to help them make the most out of every day.

Moving forward together

The March 2017 CCE was focused on relationships, not only between care partners and elders but among the people who are working around the world to affect meaningful change. Team members and leaders from several organizations in Ontario offered additional insights beyond what the three keynote presenters shared, and collectively the group reiterated that exchanging ideas is the best way for culture change to advance in Canada and around the world.

This CCE, like others before, was a small sample of what will happen when the RIA co-hosts Walk with Me: Changing the Culture of Aging in Canada on March 5 and 6, 2018.

For more details about the March 2017 Culture Change Exchange, including online videos from each presentation, visit:

Written by Kristian Partington

New Schlegel Chair in Aging and Dementia Innovation

February 7, 2017

Dr. Al PowerThe Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging (RIA) is pleased to announce that Dr. Allen Power has joined the organization as Schlegel Chair in Aging and Dementia Innovation.

Dr. Power is a geriatrician, skilled educator and published author. He is internationally respected for his work challenging the use of antipsychotic medications for people living with dementia.  With over two decades of experience in long-term care in the United States, he witnessed first-hand how institutional practices can cause more harm than good.

This experience inspired and compelled Dr. Power to develop a new approach to care for those with changing cognition. His revolutionary thinking made it possible to enhance well-being without reliance on potentially harmful medications.  His first book, Dementia Beyond Drugs: Changing the Culture of Care was named a 2010 Book of the Year by the American Journal of Nursing, and was re-released in October 2016.

Dr. Power’s work also explores the broader issue of aging in today’s society and he is an active advocate for culture change. He has been invited to all corners of the globe to speak about transforming communities so that all older citizens can enjoy and flourish in their later years.

“My work is focused on creating inclusive communities, where citizens are not segregated by cognitive ability,” says Dr. Power, “I am thrilled to be joining the RIA team where I can expand this work and collaborate with top quality researchers and innovative communities like Schlegel Villages. Together we can explore the impact of these efforts.”

Over the next few years, Dr. Power will partner with RIA researchers to advance innovative approaches to aged care and dementia. He will focus on bringing this knowledge into practice to transform the culture of care, from philosophical to system shifts, to physical design concepts for community living.

“Dr. Power is recognized around the world for his expertise and advocacy efforts to change the way we think about aging and those living with cognitive challenges,” says Josie d’Avernas, Executive Director at RIA. “He will be an asset to RIA as we continue to innovate and challenge current practices to ensure better quality of life for all older adults.”

In addition to his role with RIA, Dr. Power is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Rochester, and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and American Society for Internal Medicine.  He is also a Certified Eden Alternative Educator and a member of the Eden Alternative board of directors.

About the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging
The Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging (RIA) is a non-profit, charitable organization that partners with the University of Waterloo, Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, Schlegel Villages, and many other organizations and academic institutions, to enhance the quality of life and care of older adults. By integrating research, education and practice, RIA supports practice-relevant research and mobilizes research evidence so it can inform programs, be integrated into education and training, and influence practice and policy. The best of what is learned is then shared broadly to benefit older adults everywhere. For more information go to

Media Contact
Hilary Dunn
Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging
519-904-0660 ext. 4104

Schlegel Innovation Leader Appointed in Arts and Aging

January 23, 2017

Sheridan’s Centre for Elder Research and the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging (RIA) are pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Kate Dupuis as the Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging. This three-year appointment, which is jointly funded by the two organizations, will focus on the relationship between the arts and later life, and specifically the role of the arts in promoting health and building on individual strengths.

Dr. Dupuis is both a scientist and clinical neuropsychologist, who previously worked with RIA and the Centre for Elder Research on a pilot arts-based research project in 2009. This pilot led to a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant to study dance as an innovative health promotion strategy.

Much of Kate’s initial research will be conducted at a number of Schlegel Villages, long-term care and retirement communities across southwestern Ontario, owned and operated by Ron Schlegel, who is also Chair of the RIA Board. “Ron is an outstanding philanthropist and visionary who constantly strives to enhance the quality of life of older adults living in community and care settings,” says Pat Spadafora, Director of the Centre for Elder Research.

The impact of the creative and performing arts in supporting health and well-being has long been a primary research pillar of the Centre, and builds on Sheridan’s institutional strengths in the arts.  Past research projects have focused on fiction writing from life experience; art, visualization and you; and the impact of active and passive engagement in a music program. By collaborating with the RIA and Schlegel Villages, these efforts will be accelerated and applied in practice to enhance quality of life for older adults.

“Having a full-time researcher dedicated to the arts and aging will build our capacity to further explore the impact of the creative and performing arts on health and well-being and, wherever possible, to reduce barriers to access,” said Spadafora.  “This innovative collaboration with the RIA presents a valuable opportunity to support arts-based programs and impact policies at a community level.”

“RIA is pleased to welcome Dr. Kate Dupuis and her unique area of expertise to the team,” said Josie d’Avernas, Executive Director at RIA. “This new chapter in our partnership with Sheridan opens up many opportunities to innovate and advance our understanding of how the arts can impact health and well-being in later life.”

RIA-CLRI_Logo_Tag_Colour Sheridan Logo

About the Centre for Elder Research

The Centre was founded at Sheridan in 2003 as a campus based facility dedicated to applied research in the field of aging. The Centre conducts innovative Lab to Life® research that enhances the quality of life of older adults while serving as an education hub for Sheridan and the broader community.

About the Schlegel UW Research Institute for Aging

The Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging (RIA) is a non-profit, charitable organization that partners with the University of Waterloo, Conestoga College, Schlegel Villages, and many other organizations and academic institutions, to enhance the quality of life and care of older adults. By integrating research, education and practice, RIA supports practice-relevant research and mobilizes research evidence so it can inform programs, be integrated into education and training, and influence practice and policy. The best of what is learned is then shared broadly to benefit older adults everywhere. For more information go to

Media Contacts:

Hilary Dunn
Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging
519-904-0660 ext. 4104

Susan Atkinson
Sheridan Communications

Remembering Mike

January 3, 2017

Mike&MaxDr. Michael Sharratt, former President of the RIA (2006 – 2016) and known to most as Mike, passed away on December 23, 2016.  Under his leadership, together with that of RIA founder Ron Schlegel, the RIA grew from an idea to a unique-in-the-world infrastructure and Centre of Excellence for research and innovation in aging.

Mike’s contributions to RIA predated his 10-year tenure as President.  While Dean of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo (1998-2005) Mike worked very closely with Ron Schlegel to strategize  and facilitate the realization of Ron’s vision for a research institute that would drive research-informed innovation.  Together, Mike and Ron shepherded the proposal through senate at UW, set out core collaboration agreements with the University of Waterloo and Conestoga College, fostered affiliate collaborations with other colleges and universities, and recruited a world-class team of researchers.

As President of RIA, Mike devoted his time, wisdom and passion to building a strong foundation for future success. He was instrumental in recruiting seven Schlegel Research Chairs as well as several affiliate researchers and a strong staff team. He continued to build RIA’s capacity to support and generate high-quality research as a mentor to many researchers and students.  These researchers are now working on robust programs of research in highly relevant areas such as nutrition for healthy aging, workforce development, frailty, chronic disease management, team-based approaMikeches to care, memory assessment and management, vascular aging, and mobility. This mentorship and unwavering support also extended to the RIA staff team. His door was always open.

Mike also had a passion for health promotion and physical activity.  He instilled in all those he mentored the importance of giving back and helping others to live the best possible life. He was a driving force behind a number of initiatives that provided the support and resources to help older adults move more. There is no better example of his exceptional work on this front than the Michael T. Sharratt Program for Active Living. This signature program for older adults brings together Mike’s passions for research, physical activity, education and healthy aging.

Mike had an exceptional life and his accomplishments were many.  He was driven and ambitious, but also caring and collaborative. This unique combination and his dedication to teaching, leadership and service impacted the lives of countless students, colleagues, and friends.  He was truly a great man, and we miss him deeply.

A celebration of life will take place on January 14. For more information, please see the Obituary on Erb & Good’s website.

Read the University of Waterloo’s article “Remembering Michael Sharratt” in their Daily Bulletin