At first glance, the Village at University Gates, a long-term care home in Waterloo, Ont., may appear much like many others in Canada. Physicians, nurses and other health professionals provide various services; residents take part in activities such as group exercise, gardening and an array of hobbies. But, there is a major difference says Mike Sharratt, president of the new research institute. “There has been a conscious attempt to move away from a medical model of institutional care to a social model of living where the residents are supported to live life to the fullest.” He praises the “culture of aging” that Ron Schlegel, a former Waterloo faculty member, has created at Schlegel Villages. And, as the name suggests, the complex is located on a university campus.
The facility is part of the new Centre of Excellence for Innovation in Aging, an initiative of Schlegel Villages, and the Research Institute for Aging in partnership with the University of Waterloo and Conestoga College. The centre opened on the university’s north campus last August. Schlegel Villages owns and runs long-term care facilities across Ontario and operates the residence at U of Waterloo. In addition to the three-storey, 192-bed long-term care home, the centre also includes the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging, a $9-million, 30,000-square-foot research facility.
The thinking behind the university-integrated seniors’ community, a concept also being planned at Université de Moncton, is that it will make it easier for health care professionals, researchers, educators, students and residents to collaborate, with the aim of enhancing the quality of life of, and care for, seniors. For the universities, it improves their ability to conduct gerontology-related applied research and to provide hands-on training opportunities for students.
“For those people who have an interest in aging-related research, this arrangement really facilitates that flow from basic research ideas through to application to being able to directly assess their impact,” says James Rush, dean of applied health sciences at U of Waterloo. “The term ‘living research environment’ has been used to describe a real-life scenario in which to assess what the needs are and what kind of things can improve quality of life for individuals.
The two-storey research institute houses state-of-the-art labs, classroom space – currently being used to train personal support workers and practical nursing students from nearby Conestoga College – a community space, pharmacy and medical clinic. The institute has also created seven research chairs – including four held by U of Waterloo faculty – who, with the involvement of interested Schlegel Village residents, are studying aging-related subjects such as geriatric medicine, dementia, nutrition, medical devices and falls prevention. In addition, a kinesiology student from Waterloo is completing a co-op placement at the long-term-care facility, and more such opportunities will become available for students in other Waterloo programs.
“The students are able to gain practical experience all at one site,” Dr. Rush says. “It breaks down some barriers with the students, researchers, teachers and residents all in the same community.”
The U of Waterloo development is thought to be the first research-based continuum of care for seniors’ on a university campus in Canada (the University of Guelph leases part of its campus to an “age-in-place,” “adult-lifestyle” community, but it is not a research initiative). Eventually comprising two retirement homes with 400 more residents, the U of Waterloo development will not only bolster the university’s capacity for aging research, but will also enable the residents to stay engaged – for example by participating in research studies and taking courses – which can support their health. This integrated, pro-social style of senior living, which contrasts sharply with the conventional approach of institutionalizing the elderly, could help mitigate the impact of Canada’s aging population, says Dr. Rush, which for the first time counts more people aged over 65 than under 15.
That demographic reality is being felt most acutely in New Brunswick, the province with the highest proportion of people 65 and over. That’s one reason Université de Moncton will open its own seniors’ facility on campus, a 60-bed nursing home to be built by local developer Shannex. The home will be completed in two years and will be followed by a retirement home, special-care home and apartments. The university hopes the facilities will help attract top gerontology researchers and create experiential learning opportunities for students.
“I think universities have to be more responsive to the needs of their communities, and that there is a very good fit between a university community and these kinds of communities,” says U de Moncton president Raymond Théberge. “We have a significant aging population, and we’re hoping to use our expertise and the facilities that will be constructed to advance research on aging.”