At the second program of the season in the Jewish Seniors Alliance Snider Foundation Empowerment Series, a few Simon Fraser University graduate students shared their research interests with the 70-plus participants who tuned in via Zoom on Jan. 15.
Jointly sponsored by the JSA and Sholem Aleichem Seniors of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Studies, the Gerontology Research Panel: Eager to Share our Interests and Help our Community – What’s Up With Seniors event featured master’s students Lindsay Grasso and Kishore Seetharaman, and PhD student in gerontology Eireann O’Dea.
Grasso became interested in exploring the impacts of separating couples in long-term care settings when her own family experienced it. She said this problem of separation will become more severe as more couples age together. Current long-term care settings separate couples, depending on each partner’s individual needs.
The effects of dementia on couples is profound and, often, one partner ends up as the caregiver for the other, she said. When the point is reached that institutional care is required, being together would alleviate a lot of the pain, believes Grasso, who has received a grant to look into the long-term effects of separating couples, as well as the effects on visiting spouses, when only one partner is in care. In both scenarios, there is the loss of a shared life, shared memories and the beginning of mourning. It is important to continue the relationship through visiting, sharing activities and eating together, she said. The healthier spouse would need to monitor care and advocate for their partner. For her research, Grasso will be conducting in-person interviews with couples, and will also meet with staff to review their understanding of the issues surrounding separation.
The second presenter, Seetharaman, has a background in architecture and is interested in planning and designing dementia-friendly neighbourhoods, especially in Metro Vancouver.
Worldwide, 70% of dementia-affected adults live at home, so dementia is more than an individual health issue, it is a community issue. Communities must be more inclusive, he said. He would like them to focus on eliminating stigma, raising awareness, social engagement, accessibility to services, improving planning and design of public spaces and support given to caregivers.
In terms of design, he said, familiarity and easy recognition are important. Signs should be clearly visible and easy to read. Distinctive landmarks are helpful for finding the way, he added. There is some work being done in Vancouver in this area but it is not clear as yet how it will be implemented. Seetharaman would like to create a body of knowledge for designers. He is hoping to interview both dementia patients and public servants.
O’Dea is looking into volunteerism and cultural generativity. She became interested in these topics as an undergraduate, when she was volunteering at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and its L’Chaim Adult Day Centre. There, she encountered seniors who were volunteering with other seniors, and she is looking into the benefits on health and sense of purpose in life, as they move away from former roles. The strengths and capabilities of these older adults motivated other seniors to become involved, she noted, adding that each person’s aging process is unique.
O’Dea already has interviewed a number of senior volunteers regarding their motivation. She said many spoke of being motivated by the values of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world), and the passing on of Jewish culture. These responses led her to the exploration of cultural generativity, i.e., the desire or need to keep cultural identity alive and pass it down to future generations. This is especially relevant to ethno-cultural minorities, she said, and O’Dea will be researching four minorities: Jewish, Chinese, South Asian and Iranian. She will be studying the effects on both the volunteers and the members of the communities.
During the Q&A session, there were queries about dementia villages; the design and cost of facilities for couples in long-term care; and retention and recruitment of volunteers. The City of Vancouver is apparently looking into an age-friendly action plan that could include persons with dementia.
JSA co-president Gyda Chud reminded everyone about the evaluation questionnaire, then Shanie Levin, program coordinator for JSA, thanked the presenters. The entire program, including the PowerPoint images, is available via the JSA website, jsalliance.org.
Shanie Levin is program coordinator for Jewish Seniors Alliance and on the editorial board of Senior Line magazine.