Friday, October 22, 2021

Ron Beleno and Dr. Susan Kirkland Recognized With AGE-WELL Honorary Fellow Awards

Congratulations to caregiver advocate Ron Beleno and researcher Susan Kirkland on receiving 2020 AGE-WELL Honorary Fellow Awards.

The award is in recognition of their long-term, substantial contributions to research and innovation in technology and aging, and to the AGE-WELL network.

AGE-WELL is deeply grateful to our new Honorary Fellows for their service and exemplary work:

Ron Beleno (Toronto)

Ron Beleno understands aging and caregiving issues in a personal way. He looked after his father, who had Alzheimer’s disease, for the last 10 years of his life. Beleno understands firsthand how important it is to have support and resources available to navigate the caregiver’s journey. He has become known for his ability to connect with others, his storytelling and compassion. He has emerged as a leading advocate in the caregiving space.

For Beleno, sharing his experiences with a larger audience evolved organically. At first, other caregivers reached out to him for advice. As demand for his expertise grew, he became an advisor to not-for-profit groups and a sought-after speaker. He realized there was a need to have someone with his depth of understanding and skill-set helping to guide others.

Beleno’s involvement with AGE-WELL began five years ago. He was giving a presentation at a meeting of the Alzheimer Society of Canada. Dr. Alex Mihailidis, AGE-WELL’s scientific director, was there. So was AGE-WELL researcher Dr. Lili Liu. After Beleno’s presentation, the two invited him to become part of AGE-WELL.

He then attended AGE-WELL’s first Summer Institute in Mont Tremblant, Quebec―a week-long event to train future leaders in technology and aging. “My involvement in the network took off from there,” says Beleno. “I came to give a talk about dementia and caregiving and I fell in love with the research community. I got to meet so many incredible young researchers and coach them. I love mentoring. It’s one of the things I love about my role with AGE-WELL―that and being able to connect with older adults and caregivers. They’re in my heart because I know the pain points.”

Beleno was soon immersed in a number of AGE-WELL research projects, bringing great ideas, business savvy and an invaluable caregiver perspective. He collaborated with one team on a website which helps consumers choose GPS technologies that can locate loved ones with dementia who wander. He is working on a localized alert system called Community ASAP that could help police find missing seniors.

Beleno also helped lead the formation of the Older Adult and Caregiver Advisory Committee (OACAC) to advise the AGE-WELL network as a whole. “OACAC was created to be that connection piece that would allow others to contribute and to work with researchers, innovators, and partners at an equal level,” says Beleno, who is co-chair of the committee.

His selection as a recipient of the 2020 AGE-WELL Honorary Fellow Award recognizes his passion for technology and his tireless efforts as a dementia and caregiving advocate. Beleno’s leadership as co-chair of the OACAC has been pivotal in strengthening the organization by bringing the expertise and counsel of caregivers and older Canadians directly into network decision-making.

“This award is humbling,” says Beleno. “It acknowledges the voice that an older adult and caregiver can have in the community, and the impact we can have on others. It says that sharing my voice, my stories and my challenges are valued. This recognition is not mine alone. I share it with the voices of many others who channelled their stories through me.”

Looking forward, Beleno will be exploring new avenues to share his knowledge and continue to work with AGE-WELL on its efforts to change the narrative around aging and to provide caregivers with new hope and support.

“AGE-WELL makes a difference in many people’s lives—improving them by offering solutions, validation, and policy changes,” says Beleno. “I know my dad would be proud of what we are accomplishing. I am grateful to community members, specifically older adults and caregivers who allowed me to be part of their lives, have a meal with them, break bread and to say, ‘We are all cheering for each other and we want you to succeed.’”

Susan Kirkland (Halifax)

From growing up in British Columbia to attending university in Ontario and taking a position as a professor at Dalhousie University in her current home, Halifax, Susan Kirkland has gained knowledge and experience, literally, from coast to coast. Her roots in health and aging research run deep. She has been instrumental in the development of game-changing studies around older adults and technology in her role as project lead with OA-INVOLVE, which focuses on engaging older adults in research, and as one of three principal investigators since the inception of the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), one of the largest studies of its kind.

Dr. Kirkland’s involvement with AGE-WELL dates back to its inception in 2015. She was one of its earliest supporters. As a member of AGE-WELL’s Board of Directors, she has strengthened the network’s governance and brought critical insight as a representative of the network’s research programs. Her commitment to the meaningful inclusion and engagement of older adults in research has helped shape the approach to “co-creation” for which AGE-WELL is revered.

An epidemiologist by training, Dr. Kirkland has a long history of working on multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral projects. She has been involved in a large number of epidemiologic studies, nationally and internationally, throughout her career. While working on her PhD at the University of Toronto, Dr. Kirkland pivoted her focus. “I was looking at hormone replacement therapy and its impact on cardiovascular disease in women,” she recalls. “I started doing chronic disease epidemiology, and then I realized my primary interest was health and ways to maintain wellness and quality of life as we age.”

Though technology is central to Dr. Kirkland’s work, she is not a technology developer; her passion is the role technology plays in increasing autonomy, independence, and wellbeing. “My push is to make it accessible,” she says, “and to make it usable, and ensure it actually works for older adults in a way that sometimes developers don’t focus on.”

She brings heart and soul to research beyond the data. Doing research, she says, is not only about having strong technical skills: “It’s about being able to hear the voices of others. In particular, the voices of the people engaged in the research that I’m doing.” Dr. Kirkland is currently a co-lead on an AGE-WELL project called Living More with SMART Technology. The goal is to support technology development that improves the independence, functioning, wellbeing and quality of life of older adults in continuing care, and to create scalable and sustainable person-centred technology solutions in both long-term care and home-care settings.

It was through her research that Dr. Kirkland was first introduced to AGE-WELL. She was running a project on assistive devices used for in-home care. Dr. Andrew Sixsmith, now AGE-WELL’s scientific co-director, was involved in that project. “When AGE-WELL was developed, Andrew reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in becoming a part of it,” she recalls. “I said yes and submitted a project that ended up being the OA-INVOLVE project. It all started there.”

Dr. Kirkland says she is delighted to receive an AGE-WELL Honorary Fellow Award—and to have Ron Beleno as a fellow 2020 recipient. “The type of work that we do is complementary, so it’s great we’ve both received this recognition. AGE-WELL is a remarkable organization. I’ve been involved in so many facets of it. As a member of the Board, it’s an entity I have a lot of respect for, from top to bottom. So to be recognized by an organization that I hold in such high esteem means so much.”

This year’s award recipients join inaugural 2019 Honorary Fellow Dr. Alan Mackworth in holding the distinction.

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