A Life Course Perspective to more closely resemble the processes of aging
Since its beginnings as a Program in Gerontology (1979-1989), the first of its kind in Canada, the Institute for the Life Course and Aging has provided the University of Toronto with its only interdisciplinary venue for the study of ageing. The Institute has three aims as follows:
The first aim of the Institute is to conduct applied interdisciplinary research on aging from a life course perspective which sets the Institute apart from most existing centres and institutes on ageing. Using a bio-psycho-social approach, the Institute focuses on the processes of aging and population aging. All of the research is competitive and funded by national bodies in Canada: CIHR, SSHRC, NCE, HRSDC.
A second aim is to provide graduate education in aging and the life course through two interrelated collaborative specialization options, one in aging and one in palliative care. The program is open to students in all faculties who graduate in their own departments with a specialty in aging. Post-doctoral training of students from around the world and national and international visiting professors complete this program.
The third aim of the Institute is knowledge transfer which is achieved through research seminars that are open to the public, through online mini-series on aging for local and national professional communities in Canada and through the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly, a national centre of excellence and knowledge transfer network with over 2000 Canadian members and 10 member countries.
The Institute is administratively housed in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto and operates through an executive committee, advisory committee, awards committee, research/management committee, program committee, and a general assembly of faculty including 18 degree programs and 13 faculties, 27 departments and 60 cross-appointed, emeritus, and associate faculty members. The faculties represent a wide range from all of the health faculties through to music, law, education, social work and divinity. The Institute has educational and research partnerships with many universities in Canada and abroad, federal, provincial and municipal governments, a host of health and social care agencies, national agencies devoted to aging and business firms.
A Different Approach
Over time, our education and research focus has evolved according to three principles that sustain our work: the importance of a life course perspective, the need to rethink aging within a less ageist framework and the futility of research and education unless it reaches the hands of those who can improve the care of older adults, including older people themselves.
The Life Course
The life course perspective links the individual and the social structure and captures accumulative advantage/disadvantage over time. The versatility of the life course perspective is its hallmark since it can either be incorporated into existing theories like caregiver stress models or conversely, it can be utilized as a shell-like framework that can host other theories and concepts at macro, meso, and micro levels of analysis. The life course perspective is a framework that more closely resembles human ageing and leaves policy-makers, researchers, and practitioners free to choose an approach at each level of analysis depending on the question of interest and the researcher’s proclivities. This perspective enhances collaboration for research and teaching teams.
Ageism, the stereotyping and discrimination against older adults simply because they are old, must be curtailed in education and research. Older adults are generally viewed as frail, sick, poverty stricken, dependent persons with dementia who are a burden on society. At the Institute aging is not just about ‘pathology’, it is a vibrant and positive part of the life course. The Institute obviously recognizes that there are problems with aging just as there are with other age groups. The research and education at the Institute incorporates the idea that older adults are contributing citizens in society like everyone else and can, in many instances, care for themselves with knowledge of appropriate resources and supports. That older adults participate in the Institute like others makes it difficult to maintain stereotypes.
Based on the assumption that knowledge of the core issues of aging can help prevent and solve problems if the information is easy to understand and access, the Institute places evidence-based knowledge in the form of ‘pocket tools’ both paper and digital, in the hands of users – older adults and their families, professionals, policy makers and students. Knowledge mobilization makes sense because it is likely to be cost-efficient, makes use of existing research and can happen at a faster pace then waiting to change the behaviours of whole generations of citizens, students, practitioners and policymakers.
In keeping with the three main principles, the research of the institute focuses on transitions in a number of areas: transition from work to retirement and back, family trajectories (e.g. grandparenting, widowhood), the life course of marginalized populations (e.g. older homeless and immigrants), health trajectories (e.g. abuse, chronic diseases) and trajectories in and out of poverty (e.g. Canadian women). Research can be both qualitative and quantitative or both, is always interdisciplinary, looks at prevention and ends with knowledge transfer. Some examples from these research clusters are as follows:
Work and Retirement Transitions
The latest study in this area investigated the relationships between two transitions – caregiving and retirement – and the implications for income after the caregiving was over. The study employed a multi-method approach using national data files (General Social Surveys) to investigate patterns of involuntary retirement to caregive and in-depth interviews with persons who self-reported that they were forced to retire to caregive. The results indicated that penalties inherent in restructuring a life to solve the immediate crisis of caregiving have long-term consequences. To retire to caregive comes at the expense of income stability in retirement mainly for women who are the least likely to be able to afford early retirement.
Kinship care is an arrangement in which children, who can no longer be cared for by their parents and are raised by grandparents instead of entering foster care or adoption. Working with a national organization of kin care grandparents, a needs study of the transition into grandparenting was carried out, finding that financial literacy related to raising children was an over-whelming need since child welfare agencies provide no support for these new older parents. The research team, including the grandparents, is in process of developing paper and digital pocket financial tools to help ease their burden. The tools will be evaluated according to the degree of uptake, utilization and outcomes by the grandparents.
A large pilot study to define and measure elder mistreatment, a precursor to a national prevalence study to be conducted in Canada, examined the prevalence of perceptions of abuse at each life stage, the importance of early life stage abuse in predicting types of elder abuse, and early life stage abuse as a risk factor for elder abuse. The conclusions indicate that a childhood history of abuse in this sample had a deciding influence on later mistreatment, over and above what happens in later life.
Homelessness and Transitions
The purpose of this research was to examine the individual and structural circumstances that contributed to eviction transitions in housing across the life course; to examine housing trajectories and how they spiralled into homelessness, and to examine the confluence of social polices operative during these transitions. Qualitative interviews and secondary data analysis indicated that the transitions from stable housing to unstable housing and back again, from threats of eviction to eviction orders, and from poorer housing to homelessness were different at various stages in the life course and stretched across generations. The study shows how the mismatch between housing policies and life course stages produce negative and costly effects for the precariously housed and the state.
Education at the graduate level follows the same principles guiding the Institute. Required and elective courses encompass theory, longitudinal research methods and analysis, how to work in an interdisciplinary framework and to engage in knowledge transfer. The Institute hosts live webcast seminars on emerging topics in gerontology/geriatrics for the university, students and the public. These are archived as are our mini-series on aging that we encourage our students to attend. The series is for practitioners on specific topics they have requested (e.g. technology, law, driving, counseling, ethnicity, pharmacology, dementia). Our graduates are in the top tier of researchers, policy makers and practitioners in Canada.