Helping seniors find their place in the community

Researchers look at how seniors' centres can help older adults keep well so they can stay in their homes and communities.


(Edmonton) University of Alberta researchers from the Faculty of Extension have teamed with the Alberta Association of Seniors Centres (AASC) to explore how these gathering places fit into the province’s social and health-care landscape.

Kyle Whitfield and Jason Daniels spent the past year visiting eight seniors’ centres—large and small—in rural and urban Alberta, sharing tea, cinnamon buns and discussion with the people who operate and use the centres.

Supported with a $70,800 grant jointly awarded by Alberta Health in 2013 to the U of A, AASC and the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton (SAGE), the researchers are pinpointing the challenges facing these community gathering places, to help government and seniors’ groups answer pressing questions about future sustainability.

The researchers’ findings are included in a report that will be presented to Alberta Health and the AASC this week.

“We want to help identify a broad, current picture of what’s happening with and around seniors’ centres in Alberta,” said Daniels, associate director of Evaluation and Research Services in the faculty, and co-investigator on the research.

Although seniors’ centres have existed in Alberta for decades, little has been done to systematically identify the role they play in helping older adults remain well so they can stay in their homes and communities, said Roger Laing, AASC president.

“Most communities throughout the province have a seniors’ club or centre, so we felt it was important to understand what the challenges and capacities are for seniors’ centres, so we know what we are trying to change and what we are trying to build,” Laing said.

“We think seniors’ centres are not playing as vital a role as they could in the evolution of social policy for aging in place, and with regard to growth and the number of seniors in our communities.”

The expert data collection and analysis provided by the U of A researchers provides a strong basis for “discussions with the province about the roles seniors’ centres can play, what challenges we face and, ultimately, how to fund the services we provide,” Laing said.

Lacking a one-size-fits-all standard, the question of how these organizations should meet the needs of baby boomers entering their golden years is complex.

Like the people they serve, no two centres are the same—small or large, each offers different programs, services and hours of operation. The future of each centre, Daniels noted, “looks very different depending on where they are. There is no model of what a seniors’ centre should be.”

Using a mix of surveys sent to 400 centres and a handful of soon-to-be seniors in Alberta, conversations with centre directors and seniors, and reviews of existing studies from around the world, Whitfield, lead investigator and an associate professor in the Faculty of Extension, and Daniels came up with key findings that outline the challenges facing centres.

Their year-long research quest uncovered some key issues.

A lack of consistent funding and a struggle to attract new, younger senior membership for future sustainability are two main issues. Linked to that is a need for qualified leadership in seniors’ centres, in areas such as program development and specialization in working with an aging population.

“Salaries are lower than average, so there is an issue of greater and more stable funding being needed,” said Whitfield.

The study also uncovered just how important seniors’ centres are as caring social places, Daniels noted. “The people who use them have a sense of belonging; they can be with their peers. Some of them told us that it would even be harmful if their centre were removed from their daily lives.”

“Without seniors’ centres, there’s a void in how people continue to be engaged in their lives as they age,” said Luanne Whitmarsh, chief executive officer of the Kerby Centre in Calgary. “These centres keep people out of hospitals, they increase quality of life, they matter.”

Also crucial is the big-picture role seniors’ centres can play in the health-care and social service systems.

“Currently those services are divided, and our research shows that there needs to be more of a blending between our social support systems like seniors’ centres and our more formal health systems,” Whitfield said.

During their visits, the researchers saw some centres that were highly successful because of services offered. “For example, they’d have a foot clinic at their centre, rather than their members having to go to another location, and it worked really well,” she noted.

“We know that improved health is a result of people who are happier, who have friends, networks and daily activities. That has an impact on physical and mental well-being,” Whitfield added.

In teaming with AASC, the U of A researchers hope their work assists the group in “creating a stronger voice for seniors and seniors’ centres,” Whitfield said.

“It is important for us, as members of the Faculty of Extension, to work with grassroots organizations,” she added. “We are breaking down the walls between the community ‘out there’ and the university community.”