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Elder-research program marks 10 years of results

By Don Wall, FYI National Editor
August 28, 2013 - 56 comments

Sheridan College is planning to celebrate the 10th birthday of its Sheridan Elder Research Centre with a splash in September, landing a world-renowned specialist in global aging issues as a keynote speaker at an anniversary celebration set for Sept. 6.

Dr. Alexandre Kalache is currently president of the International Longevity Centre in Brazil, a founder of the Age-Friendly Cities Initiative and former director of the Global Ageing Programme for the World Health Organization. That SERC was able to book Kalache was a stroke of luck, says Pat Spadafora, director of the research centre, in that he happened to be speaking in Montreal around that same time so it made it easier to confirm the engagement. “Our speaker is really fantastic, I love him,” she said recently.

In Spadafora, the program’s founder, SERC has its own luminary in the field of analysis and research for the mature market. She was coordinating the social-service worker and gerontology-worker programs at Sheridan when she attended a conference marking the United Nations International Year of Older Persons in 1999. “I thought Sheridan should do something else other than vocational training,” she recalls, and so decided to take advantage of the “open-door policy” of then Sheridan president Sheldon Levy to do some brainstorming.

“I met with him and said, Sheldon, I have an idea. And it was really Sheldon who made it happen.” Levy announced the notion at a conference, input was sought from other departments, and Levy assisted Spadafora as she applied for her first research grant.

“He was just such a visionary. He said, you may not get it your first time out, but he said, even if you don’t get a grant right away, it starts to get the word out there that you are interested in doing this.”

The idea was to launch SERC as a centre for excellence in research, and when the first grant money came in around 2001, SERC was a go. It opened its doors in September, 2013. The initial vision has been pretty well maintained, says Spadafora, with research projects focusing on six areas: Creative and Performing Arts, Learning in Retirement, Civic Engagement, The Built Environment, Aging in Place and Product Design. A core belief, she explains, was that dealing with the elderly should go beyond health narrowly defined to embrace lifestyle issues, the community they live in and efforts to promote self-expression in the arts and as volunteers.

Formally stated, the goal of SERC is said to be to “identify, develop, test and support implementation of innovative strategies that improve the quality of life for older adults and their families, and to do this through applied research.”

SERC is headquartered at the Sheridan College Campus in Oakville, Ont. Sheldon Levy is no longer on the job but “our current president, Jeff Zabudsky, is also a great supporter,” Spadafora notes.

One of the first programs, she remembers, involved 15 focus groups involving caregivers for people with dementia, and they asked them one question. “We just asked people to imagine a day in their life, and what would make that day better. And that was published. It sounds crazy now, but much of that early work shaped how we developed.

“I always knew I didn’t want our work to be limited to just the helping professions. That’s important, but I worked just as much with students in computing studies and people in our music theatre program.”

SERC maintains a staff of four or five full-time people and a research staff that she estimates at 14, a number that fluctuates depending on grants. Funding comes from partnerships with the private sector and from both federal and provincial grants, with Sheridan providing home-base support.

There is one area that Spadafora did not foresee as she and colleagues prepared to launch SERC 10 years ago, and that is the development of a program to work with the business sector, helping entrepreneurs understand and market to boomers and seniors. BA:IEN – the Business of Aging: Information Exchange Network – is the program created to facilitate those goals.

“I alluded to the fact that my background is social work, so initially I resisted that whole business approach for a quite awhile, because it just did not seem consistent with my background, and then to be honest I thought, people are going to take advantage of an aging demographic whether I think they should be doing it or not, so maybe we have an opportunity to help shape how that becomes. The honest truth is that if a company approaches me, and all they see is a business opportunity, I won’t work with them. If I feel they really have the older generation’s interest at heart, well obviously everybody wins, right? I don’t want to see people exploiting older adults.”

BA:IEN organizes regular business-outreach sessions that give members of the business community a chance to meet with SERC researchers and guests and discuss mature-market issues in person.

Spadafora trademarked the slogan From Lab to Life and says that is the ultimate goal of SERC’s efforts – to do research that ends up doing practical good in society. An example she offers is a partnership with an Ottawa company called Dynamic Brain, which set about to determine if older citizens would do cognitive exercises in the way that gyms promoting physical fitness are ubiquitous. A product called Posit Science software was developed and it’s now in the marketplace. Says Spadafora, “Just last week one of my colleagues showed me a program (stemming from the Dynamic Brain collaboration), we tested it with the Oakville public library, and now they have integrated it into their ongoing programming. So that was kind of cool.”

To attend SERC’s 10th-anniversary celebration on Sept. 6 featuring Alexandre Kalache as guest speaker, call 905-845-9430 ext. 8617 or email For more information about SERC, visit


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