A new program is being offered by a partnership between To Thrive Together Sustainable Living and the Township of Woolwich.
The program aims to help people rethink the assumptions and stereotypes they hold about getting older.
Over the duration of the six-week program, participants talk online over Zoom, covering topics that often don’t get talked about, said Jill Simpson, the executive director of To Thrive Together Sustainable Living and a healthy aging specialist.
In the early days of the pandemic, Simpson was teaching seniors remotely and hosting online coffee chat sessions. She noticed that many of her clients were becoming troubled and frightened by the images of isolated elders in lockdown. Images such as a senior in isolation at a window were very troubling.
“It was apparent that the images they were seeing in the media were having a really profound effect on their health,” said Simpson.
“So we felt we needed to create a program, and we did it as a workshop, to put things in perspective to counteract some of those incredibly negative images and concepts about growing old.”
These images in the media reinforced negative stereotypes about getting older that are just not supported by scientific findings, she said.
For example, “people believe that inevitably, they’re going to end up in a retirement community or retirement home, assisted living, long term care and die in hospital.”
“Only seven per cent of seniors actually end up in long-term care. But I would say 95 per cent believe they will,” said Simpson.
She realized there was a need in the community to push back against these negative images and help people understand they are in control of their own aging process.
A pilot seminar ran with the Woolwich Seniors’ Association over late-winter and spring last year in the form of a weekly online coffee session over Zoom.
The discussion was aimed at addressing the fears people have about getting older.
“Most people aren’t very afraid to die at all,” said Simpson. “They’re concerned about health issues, but their biggest concern is loss of control over their lives and loss of dignity.
“Our beliefs about how we are going to grow older profoundly affect our aging trajectory. The stereotypes that are embedded in our brains as children come back to haunt us as adults when we get to the age of the stereotype.”
People with a realistic and positive approach to aging have at least a ten percent increase in lifespan, she said, while those who see it as a time of decline and loss, fulfill that.
“Our job is to get rid of those negative thoughts and replace them with scientific evidence,” she said.
Simpson says during the pilot project they were able to talk about hard topics like death in a more comfortable way and “have a few laughs.”
The goal of the seminar is to help people design a rest of life plan to age well and with dignity so they are in control of their lives and feel a strong sense of purpose.
“It’s all about planning ahead,” she said.
The feedback Simpson received to the pilot was great.
Simpson said one participant wrote to her about the workshop on dying. “They said, ‘that was difficult. I am so grateful.’”
“It was like, that was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life, thank you so much for making me do it,” said Simpson.
She said another one of her older participants wrote to tell her he just registered for his PhD.
Since the pilot ran, Simpson and her colleague Marjorie Paleshi have received government funding to run the series again. This time it will be available to anyone in Ontario. They will run 10 six-week workshops.
Participants of the pilot workshop will be volunteering to help facilitate the conversation. There will also be a team to help behind the scenes to make sure the workshop runs smoothly and other trained facilitators, said Simpson.
The Township of Woolwich is running the registration for the project. Staff are taking registrations online or in-person at the Woolwich Memorial Centre. People with technical difficulties registering online can contact the township’s customer service desk at 519-669-1647, ext. 7000.
“When Jill approached us for these workshops, it was just such a unique opportunity for us to assist with partnering and spreading the word for our older adult population,” said Marie Malcolm, the program and inclusion coordinator with the township.
The six-week program will run 10 times over the next 10 months.
To begin, series one will run Tuesdays May 24 to June 28 from 1-2:30 p.m., series two will run Thursdays May 26 to June 30 from 9:30-11 a.m.
The program is free to attend.
Simpson said participants typically range in age from 55 all the way to late 90s, though she wouldn’t turn others away.
“One thing is to start right now. You can’t change the past, so start now,” said Simpson. “When something bad happens, it’s about planning ahead.
“Understanding gives people power to make decisions.”