NEWS FEATURE: Learning from the aged

University of Victoria research centre marks 20 years of investigation into what happens when we get older

Holly Tuokko

There’s something fitting about the University of Victoria’s Centre on Aging celebrating a milestone.

The interdisciplinary research centre is entering its 20th year in 2012. Over two decades it’s become one of Canada’s foremost examiners of the issues facing our aging population, and their impact on society as a whole.

It seems like a no-brainer that the subject would merit scrutiny, but that wasn’t always the case.

“When the centre first opened, there was very little focus in our community on aging, despite the fact that even then, the percentage of older adults was higher in Victoria than most other parts of British Columbia,” says Holly Tuokko, who has been with the centre since 1997 and became its director in 2009.

My, how things change. These days, the centre has nearly 50 research affiliates in 18 different areas of study, from engineering to nursing, biochemistry to anthropology. Research projects focus on such topics as housing, health service usage and caregiving, among many others.

It’s all part of an effort to paint a comprehensive picture of what life is like for older adults, and where our aging population is headed.

“As we’ve moved forward, more and more of us have become aware of the issues related to aging,” Tuokko says. “(Studying) the impact on society and how society can contribute to healthy aging, (can help) to keep as many of us healthy and active as long as possible.”

The director herself is in the midst of a national study looking at the hot-button issue of seniors and driving. Opinions abound on whether restrictions should be imposed on drivers once they reach a certain age, but Tuokko points out that very few – including those which shape government policy – are based on hard facts.

“(Policy) was developed many years ago … without the data behind it,” she says. “Now we’re collecting the data to make sure the practices that are going on are in fact the best practices.”

To be clear, Tuokko adds, the goal is not necessarily to get seniors off the road.

“Our study is to identify at what points we might need to do some more looking at people, or what kinds of things will assist people.”

Neena Chappell, centre director for the first 10 years and currently a research affiliate, says this is a particularly important time for the study of aging.

“We’re the first cohort where everybody lives to old age,” she explains. “In earlier times, a few people would live as long as most do today, but now we virtually all do, and we can expect to.”

In addition, Chappell points out, the first of the baby boomers are now entering retirement, which has profound implications for society as a whole.

“Our definition of old age may start to be defined as older.”

Chappell is involved in several studies currently underway at the centre. One involves looking at drugs being given to people with dementia and how their effects are perceived by patients’ family members and physicians. The results of the study could have some very real impacts down the road.

“One of our deliverables at the end is to recommend whether they should be covered (by Pharmacare),” Chappell says.

It’s just one of many ways the work done at the centre can influence public policy, notes Tuokko.

“I think the centre has made many contributions to raising the profile of aging issues and finding ways to support, be proactive and facilitate positive change,” she says.

Of course, looking back at the past can lead to gazing into the future.

And Chappell sees a major shift on the horizon.

“The conversation is going to be very different,” she says. “Instead of declining fertility rates and old schools, you may well be talking about what we’re going to do with these empty nursing homes and assisted living places.”

Whatever the questions, the Centre on Aging will more than likely be instrumental in finding the answers.

reporter@vicnews.com

Ongoing research

To find out what the UVic Centre on Aging is up to, visit www.coag.uvic.ca