Profile: Western University Researcher Carri Hand Discovers Ways Seniors Impact their Neighbourhoods

Western University professor and researcher Carri Hand has discovered some thought-provoking ways that seniors shape their neighbourhoods.  

SeniorsZen was able to catch up with her and discuss the results of her research, which was conducted in neighbourhoods of London, Ontario.

Hand said that she was initially concerned with older adults not being able to participate in their communities but what she discovered unveiled the casual interactions and ways that seniors impact communities.

Q) Tell me a bit about your research.

I did a study looking at how older people are interacting with their neighbours. Just what their experiences are just living in their neighbourhoods, especially related to social inclusion and social engagement.

The study itself was fairly exploratory and so I didn’t go in with hypothesis I was testing. It was mostly qualitative research.

A main finding that came out was that there are some real positive impacts that older people are having on their neighbourhoods, which was a really cool finding for me just because I love to be able to tell those stories.

Q) What are some of these impacts that seniors have on their neighbourhoods?

They are talking with local business owners and storekeepers and neighbours as they are passing them as they go for walks. They go to exercise programs and staying afterwards for some casual chatting with one another. Kind of creating a sort of pop-up social circle that was never formalized. No one planned it but it is the kind of thing that just happens when people are out there and willing to contribute and being friendly.

The other way that they were contributing is through helping others. So many of the participants talked about the way they are helping other seniors.  They are doing things like checking in on their neighbours or driving them to appointments. They are doing some church service work. They’ve got expertise they are sharing at the senior’s centre like regarding computers for instance.

Q) Was there anything negative about the discoveries you found?

That made me think a bit about services that are available for seniors and whether or not things are in place that should be in place. I think they are not in place but they should be in place. So other seniors are stepping in to do some of this work.

Another part of that is the burden it is placing on the seniors taking on the roles. So, they are having to kind of negotiate these relationships, ‘How much help can I give? What can I reasonably do given my own health issues? Should the person’s family get involved? Is this more of a role for a family member versus just me as a friend?’

There are all these sorts of tensions that they have to figure out. I think some are them are starting to place boundaries around what they were and weren’t willing to do and how close they were willing to get to people because they didn’t want to get into situations they had been in the past where they were doing a lot more then they wanted to do.

Q) How can this research be used by different organizations?

This could inform things like city planning. Maybe the city would benefit from creating outdoor spaces that are really inviting for seniors that have shade and benches and plants. They can facilitate this kind of public social interaction that contributes to the community and helps the well being of the older people also.

The physical space of the neighbourhood was important. Accessible and flat sidewalks are pretty key for people. I compared two neighbourhoods and one didn’t have continuous sidewalks. They ended at certain places or there wouldn’t be a sidewalk. I can’t do a straight cause and effect or anything but it seemed to me that having those sidewalks in place in the other neighbourhood really facilitated people walking out in their neighbourhood. Whereas in the one without sidewalks it was just a bit of barrier to being out.

Primary care providers or senior’s centres could think about resources for these seniors that are helping other seniors. So, ‘You’re helping your friend. What do you need in place to help you do that better?’  Is there information you need to pass along? Are there services you need to be aware of that you could connect that person to rather than doing it yourself? That sort of thing could be put in place.

Q) Is there anything else about your research you’d like to share?

Having strong neighbourhoods is a real key determinant of health. Older people are often the most vulnerable ones. They can’t benefit from some of the resources if they are not accessible.

They really connect to their neighbourhoods since they are doing these casual activities in their neighbourhoods. Occupational Therapists call them occupations. Those are things that are meaningful that people do. We think often about the connections that people have with their close friends, their family members, their grandchildren and children. Those are all great to have but the research that I did was just highlighting the idea that you also need this other layer of people who are maybe peripheral to your life. You don’t see them as often but they are still important. People that we have interactions with day to day and those are the people that I mentioned like neighbours and storekeepers and people you see when you are out walking or when you go to the mall. It is important to be able to be in contact with those people.

I think that is something that might fall away from a person’s life first. You might think of someone who has some mobility difficulties so they are staying home more often. They are probably still in contact with their family and close friends but they are losing that wider social network and that is an important loss. That is a negative thing.

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