Dr. Pooja Viswanathan displays the obstacle-detection sensors. Courtesy of Braze Mobility

What does renewal look like? If you ask any of the participants who attended the recent AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence: Creating the Future 2020-2025 consultation session at the University of Toronto in June 2018, their answer would perhaps resemble this: Renewal is a room of 100 or so engaged, passionate stakeholders from all walks of life, who brainstorm, debate, question, analyze, discuss – and share their dreams, hopes and plans for the future of Canada’s aging population. The future, in this case, refers specifically to 2020-2025.

AGE-WELL, a key partner of YouAreUnltd, is the only pan-Canadian network that brings together a broad range of stakeholders (researchers, end-users, industry, government and non-profit organizations) to develop technology-based solutions to support healthy aging. Since 2015, AGE-WELL has dedicated itself to driving innovation and creating technologies and services that benefit older adults and caregivers.

“AGE-WELL has brought together 200 partners from government, academia as well as the private and public sectors to create technological innovations that will make life more robust for our aging population.”

As co-facilitator Dr. Andrew Sixsmith, professor and director of the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University and scientific director of AGE-WELL, said in his opening remarks: “We’re proud of our achievements since 2015 [the year it launched]: AGE-WELL has brought together 200 partners from government, academia as well as the private and public sectors to create technological innovations that will make life more robust for our aging population. We have funded 66 projects, which have produced 72 solutions to improve the lives of aging adults; we’ve supported 12 start-up companies; and we’ve launched three AGE-WELL National Innovation Hubs. These represent just a handful of our accomplishments. But now, as our current mandate expires in 2020, it’s time to consider how AGE-WELL will move forward for the next five years. How will we renew ourselves?”

Over a three-hour period, stakeholders, often in intimate breakout groups, addressed a variety of questions, which will impact the lives of older Canadians and their caregivers. There was talk about “challenges” – important but difficult and complex problem areas that demand innovation and real-world solutions. Participants gave their thoughts on proposed “challenge areas” – such as social participation and financial wellness – which, when decided, will be a focus of AGE-WELL programs in 2020 and beyond.

The AGE-WELL team will collate and analyze the detailed feedback from stakeholders as similar consultation sessions are held in various cities across Canada in the next few months, explained co-facilitator Dr. Alex Mihailidis, a University of Toronto professor who is joint scientific director of AGE-WELL, as well as the Barbara G. Stymiest Research Chair in Rehabilitation Technology at the University of Toronto and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

“Innovating and brainstorming together, like we are today with people of all ages from all walks of life – all of whom have a vested interest in the renewal of AGE-WELL – is a necessary step in our continued growth, especially if we intend to continue having a positive impact on the lives of aging Canadians,” said Dr. Sixsmith.

To appreciate the extent of AGE-WELL’s achievements to date, one need only consider the impact of some of the 12 start-ups the network has supported to date.

Steadiglove co-founders Mark Elias (right) and Emile Maamary (left) found a way to help ease hand tremors experienced by those with Parkinson’s disease.
Dr. Pooja Viswanathan founded Braze Mobility Inc. and developed sensors for wheelchairs.

For instance, AGE-WELL has co-funded (along with the Ontario Brain Institute and the Ontario Centres of Excellence) development of the lightweight, compact, battery-free stabilizing Steadiglove, which uses a “smart” fluid to counter hand tremors experienced by people who live with Parkinson’s disease. “Essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease can cause debilitating hand tremors that make the simplest of activities, such as eating, drinking and writing, a real challenge,” according to Mark Elias, CEO and co-founder of Steadiwear Inc. The Steadiglove innovation has the potential to improve the lives of 200 million people around the world who suffer from hand tremors.  

Similarly, AGE-WELL’s financial support of Braze Mobility Inc. has enabled the start-up’s CEO, Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, to develop – and bring to market – sensors for wheelchairs. The innovative sensor technology helps people in manual and electric wheelchairs to detect obstacles, thereby increasing their own safety – as well as independence. Braze Mobility has essentially found a way to transform an everyday wheelchair into a “smart” wheelchair that will help prevent collisions, changing the lives of wheelchair users of all ages.

Another start-up funded by AGE-WELL is WinterLight Labs, whose team builds technology that can swiftly and accurately detect and monitor dementia, aphasia and other cognitive impairments by analyzing a one-minute sample of an individual’s speech. This is a marked improvement over the current method involving pencil-and-paper tests which can be costly, difficult to administer and time-consuming.

WinterLight Labs
The team at WinterLight Labs developed technology to help detect and monitor dementia. Photo: AGE-WELL.

AGE-WELL has also supported the MyMem app, which is a “Memory Siri” that helps people create digital story books incorporating precious life memories, experiences and photos of loved ones. This app is a boon especially for adults who may not have advanced technical skills to create a digital album. One of the impacts: adults living with dementia can easily access family photos and messages.

The latest statistics from the Joint Health authority estimate more than 4.5 million Canadians live with some form of arthritis. These are the individuals who could potentially benefit from another AGE-WELL-supported startup, eTreatMD, which has developed a mobility health app, approved by Health Canada that enables people to measure, monitor and manage their arthritis.

Looking to the future, Dr. Mihailidis said; “As AGE-WELL moves forward, we are still very much about building critical mass and an ecosystem. Technology on its own is not enough. Practice, policy and service delivery models must be in place for technology-based solutions to be effective.” Stakeholder involvement in all aspects of the network will continue to be a cornerstone of AGE-WELL, he said. “Now is the time to get involved in AGE-WELL 2.0.”

We’ll be looking to maximize our investment to improve the lives of older Canadians.”

AGE-WELL is funded through the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program from March 2015 to February 2020. The network’s plans and priorities for 2020-2025 will be submitted to the NCE in June 2019.

Key AGE-WELL 2.0 goals include:

  1. Continue to drive culture change within the research community that will significantly increase the likelihood of real world impact.
  2. Invest in research and development that will maximize return on investment in terms of social and economic benefits to Canada.
  3. Further establish support structures required by the research community and its partners.
  4. Significantly influence policy and practice related to the use of technology to support Canadian seniors.

To learn more about AGE-WELL and how you can contribute to its renewal process, visit its site.