Helping older adults choose the life they want

(Edmonton) For as long as Sarah Lucas can remember, older adults have graced her life. Growing up among many elderly aunts, uncles and grandparents, Lucas got to see how they embraced their lives, right to the end.

It’s no surprise, then, that quality of life for older people grew into a personal passion for Lucas, who turned it into a master of science degree from the University of Alberta’s Department of Human Ecology. And when she claims her degree June 12, her 91-year-old grandfather and 70-year-old mother-in-law will be on hand to help celebrate.

The active pair, along with others in her family, are her inspiration for a career devoted to seniors and to the field of gerontology.

“My grandpa and mother-in-law have lives we would all like to have,” Lucas said. Her grandfather golfs, travels and keeps three homes; her husband’s mother single-handedly raises alpacas on a farm that has been in the family for more than 100 years. But Lucas has also been haunted by the flip side of aging, watching her aunt, ill with cancer, become hospitalized and then have to push for her right to die with dignity.

“These are all people I wanted to work for.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in psychology in Calgary, Lucas worked in long-term care as a recreation therapist, where her respect for seniors deepened.

“They are honest, there is so much to learn from them and they are appreciative.”

Lucas also began to learn about what was important to them—living with choice.

“There are a lot of needs and concerns to address about their quality of life. Why don’t we have conversations now about what older adults want? There are a lot of ways that we as a society need to be proactive rather than reactive to issues of aging. ”

Wanting to build on her knowledge, Lucas enrolled at the U of A to do a master of science degree. She focused on informal caregiving by family and friends who find themselves tending to the needs of older people in their lives.

During her research, Lucas discovered a basic truth about what seniors want: “They want to stay in their homes as they age. So how do we work with people and their resources to do that?”

Degree in hand, Lucas is now working for the Alberta government’s continuing-care branch, looking at policy in home care, supportive living and long-term care for elderly and other vulnerable groups. As part of an “innovation” unit, she provides direction for grants given to front-line agencies, follows the resulting projects and then assesses them to inform policy on continuing care.

Lucas loves her behind-the-scenes work. “In the projects we support, the long-term benefit is what will improve the quality of life for older adults, and anything I can do in my work to make their lives better is important to me.”

Earning what she considers a unique degree in aging from the U of A has empowered her to have real impact in her work, Lucas believes.

“It gives me a sphere of influence I didn’t have with my undergraduate degree. I went back to school to be able to do more and now I have huge opportunities for making a difference.”