Monday, June 24, 2024

AGE-WELL Volunteers Shape Real-World Solutions For An Aging Population

Volunteer work can be very satisfying, especially after retirement when more time is at your disposal. On the other hand, you don’t want to be caught with a volunteering commitment that ends up feeling like a part-time job (minus the pay). If you’re looking to help make a difference at a pace that suits your schedule, AGE-WELL may be the perfect fit.

AGE-WELL is a network of researchers working with government, businesses, non-profit organizations and, importantly, older adults and caregivers to develop practical, affordable, technology-based solutions to support healthy aging. Whatever your comfort level with technology, AGE-WELL is looking for your help to test products and services, as well as your input for new projects.

Kate and Ian Britt are among the members of the AGE-WELL community. “It’s pretty exciting to become involved again in helping others, doing something that also keeps our own minds active and engaged,” says Kate, 69.

The Britts hesitate to describe what they’ve done as volunteer work. It’s more like a collaboration, one that’s mutually beneficial. “Once you retire and your kids are busy with their own lives, you’re looking for opportunities like this to help you stay relevant,” notes Ian, 74. spoke to a number of AGE-WELL “collaborators.” Read on to learn more about what they’re doing, and to find out how you can become part of the AGE-WELL community.


Kate and Ian Britt, Vancouver, BC

About three years ago, a local ad piqued the curiosity of Kate and Ian Britt. PhD students at Simon Fraser University were seeking older adults to be part of a study on the use of online gaming to promote interactions between generations.

“They wanted product testers. Initially it was for a physical game, similar to an escape room, and then we moved on to online games and virtual reality,” says Ian, a former marine biologist and high school teacher. “It was right up our alley, especially for me. I’m an online games addict.”

Kate and Ian Britt with two of their six grandchildren.

Over the next couple of years, Kate and Ian would join a handful of other testers at the university. Each game involved a series of three two-hour sessions, spread out over several months. “I really liked the last game, which was based on an Alice-in-Wonderland type of story,” says Kate. “Wearing virtual reality headsets, we explored a huge virtual landscape, solving puzzles in each area. Two people worked together, one guiding the other. A grandparent and grandchild in different locations could play this game online.”

The researchers soaked up their feedback to improve game functionality and enjoyment. “One was a fishing simulation, and I suggested that after the cast there should be a circular motion on the reel to better mimic the hand motion of reeling in the line. Little details like that make it more fun,” says Ian.

The sessions themselves were fun as well as mentally and socially stimulating. “Our minds were fully engaged, not just in the games but also in working with the students,” says Kate, who worked as an adult educator and technical writer before retiring. The time commitment was also just right. “We no longer enjoy having regularly scheduled commitments. This project-based model was appealing.”


Stuart Embleton and Burn Evans, Edmonton, AB

Happenstance may have introduced Stuart Embleton to one of AGE-WELL’s research projects, but the 77-year-old Edmontonian would agree that his involvement has since become an enjoyable part of his life.

Soon after retiring in 2004, he and his wife, Maria, began renting a room out to international students studying at University of Alberta (UofA). About four years ago, that student was Victor Fernandez from Mexico, who has since earned his PhD and is now a postdoctoral fellow, specializing in virtual reality, at UofA, and an AGE-WELL trainee.

“As an engineer, I’m naturally interested in technical things. I began helping Victor by editing his papers, checking the English, and while doing that I learned more about what he was doing and thought he had some great ideas,” recalls Embleton. Those ideas eventually focused on the development of a virtual gym that gives personalized feedback to older adults with chronic health conditions, mobility challenges and/or early-to-moderate dementia.

As someone with a heart condition, Embleton began testing the virtual gym about a year ago. Not only that, he brought in six others, all fellow members of the Cardiac Athletic Society of Edmonton, a member-run exercise and events club for people with heart-health issues. “Everybody came to my home and Victor set up the equipment.” Soon they were all involved in testing and development of the new system.

Volunteer Burn Evans.

Burn Evans, 77, was one of those volunteers. He also gave his voice, literally. “I was pretty critical about the software’s original voice, which was young and sounded too techie. Apparently I have a nice voice and speak well, so that became my main contribution to the virtual gym.”

Embleton has since become somewhat of a poster-boy for the project. Recently he was part of a photo shoot, where he demonstrated some exercises, and in October he’ll be at AGE-WELL’s annual conference to demonstrate before a live audience.

Embleton enjoys being part of the inside track for a unique technology that will help older adults stay active. “When you retire, you leave something that was a big part of your life. You need to find new, interesting things to do, and this fills the bill. It doesn’t take an awful lot of time, and it’s certainly worth my while.”

Evans, meanwhile, has moved on to beta-testing virtual games designed to exercise the brain, especially for those with dementia, as part of a project called Vibrant Minds. “By training I’m a social psychologist and I’ve always been interested in the brain. Even more so since I had a mild stroke three years ago. These games encourage brain plasticity, which essentially means that other parts of the brain can take up the function of parts that are damaged.”

His voice again became his signature contribution. “The original video introductions showed a young guy with a hoodie on—that had to go. Then I wasn’t very positive about what he said or how he said it, especially when you consider that people with dementia will be listening. The researchers asked me to rewrite and rerecord the script. We had fun doing it.”

Evans is exploring other ways to contribute to AGE-WELL; most recently, he participated in a session in Edmonton, part of a cross-country effort by staff to gather grassroots input for the organization’s next five-year plan. Evans emphasizes he gets back as much as he gives. “I get to work with a number of young, bright people. It’s great to contribute to what they learn, and learn from them as well. And we share some good laughs.”


Ron Beleno, Toronto, ON

Caregiver and volunteer Ron Beleno.

If you are a caregiver, AGE-WELL may be of particular interest. “Many caregivers, whether intentionally or not, become advocates,” says Ron Beleno, who was a caregiver for his father, who had Alzheimer’s disease, for 10 years until his death in January this year. “Based on your personal experiences you have ideas on how to improve the healthcare system, but you don’t know where to go. AGE-WELL is a great opportunity to have a stake in creating research and innovation, and to affect policy. It can give your caregiving journey an even greater sense of purpose.

Beleno first got involved with AGE-WELL three years ago, when he was part of a working group on dementia, technology and safety for the Alzheimer Society of Ontario. Alex Mihailidis, scientific co-director for AGE-WELL, was also a member of the group and asked Beleno to come on board at AGE-WELL to share his experiences and strategies as a caregiver with researchers, students and other caregivers across Canada (AGE-WELL covered the costs for travel).

“Eventually I began collaborating with AGE-WELL researchers on their projects. And I continue to do presentations when asked. I’ve helped train new students working at AGE-WELL sites, and I’ve started to do one-on-one mentoring, which is great.” As well, Beleno became co-chair of AGE-WELL’s new Older Adult and Caregiver Advisory Committee, established in fall 2017. “We can reduce steps by having a caregiver at the table from the start.”

Beleno, a consultant and entrepreneur, says his time commitment to AGE-WELL is pretty high. Most other caregiver-volunteers contribute a few hours a month, when they’re able. AGE-WELL contacts them—by phone or in online meetings—for feedback during the selection process for new research projects, or to collaborate on projects that are underway.


Silvana and Derek Carr, Vancouver, BC

Volunteers Silvana and Derek Carr.

Feelings of pride, fulfillment, inner peace—these are some of the terms that Silvana and Derek Carr, of Vancouver, BC, use to describe their time volunteering with AGE-WELL.

Their experience began about two years ago, after seeing an ad posted at their local community centre. Researchers at Simon Fraser University were looking for older adults to share stories from their lives through digital storytelling. “I always wanted to do something like that. It’s really nice to be able to leave a coherent narrative behind for our kids and grandchildren,” says Silvana, 75, a retired college educator.

In addition to learning how to use the technologies to record a narrative, match it to images and bring in music, participants were surveyed about the whole experience. “The object was to look at how the story-telling affected us,” says Silvana.

For one thing, researchers didn’t expect participants to keep coming back. Between them, Silvana and Derek created seven videos. Each required 10 weekly sessions of about three hours each, working with the workshop facilitator, plus the time required at home to go through photos and mementos. “They were quite surprised that we went back several times. The researchers had to adjust their study parameters!” recalls Silvana with a laugh.

For Silvana and Derek, the trips down memory lane became an affirmation of lives well lived. “The process of remembering, or focusing on certain aspects of your personality, makes you really reflect on how you’ve come to be who you are, and how much you’ve accomplished,” says Derek, 74, a retired university professor.

Hearing the other participants’ stories was also moving. “Some of them seemed like very quiet people, but lurking in their past was a story of incredible interest. It was meaningful not just for them, but for us as well,” says Derek.


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Karen Welds
Karen Welds
Karen Welds is a freelance writer and empty-nester living in Buckhorn, ON.