Toward a better future for older people

Published on October 16, 2017

Hélène Perrault, Professor and Dean at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa, and partner of the International Longevity Center of Canada explains the effects of sensory reduction and how society can adapt to an aging population.

Hélène PerraultA recent study by the University of Ottawa and Sodexo highlighted sensory reduction in older people. What are the most common sensory losses?

Hélène Perrault: Some are more obvious, like eyesight, while others like taste or sense of smell are less so. There are also different types of loss – between senses and cognitive faculties – with some that can be corrected, and some declining at different rates. There is no ‘one size fits all’. What’s important to recognize is the nature and extent of the impairment and the possibilities, if any, of alleviating that. In some cases, we can provide mobility, for example, so that people can enjoy a full life. But we don’t know enough or pay enough attention to sensory deficits.

What is the impact on people of such loss?

H.P.: With eyesight, people are willing to have tests and wear glasses. But it’s not the same for other sensory or cognitive defects. Many people are reluctant to wear hearing aids, without realizing the impact it has on their behavior, especially if you add a visual impairment. It’s a spiral. A lack of self-confidence can lead to reduced mobility and a reduction of other physical capabilities. Care providers need to be especially aware of this. A person with a hearing impairment may not react as expected, making carers wonder about their cognitive ability.

Is the loss of faculties taken seriously?

H.P.: Probably not enough, and for two reasons. There is an aspect of denial by the individual; no-one likes to recognize that your abilities are fading, and there is still a lack of awareness in society, despite the demographics showing that within 30 years the percentage of over 65s will double. So, the more we can raise awareness about the issue, the more people will recognize it. In the early 1960s, physical exercise wasn’t recognized as part of a healthy lifestyle. Now it is. I think there is a societal shift occurring with aging and we will see more sensitivity to the issues in future.

How can care sector companies and academics collaborate on this?

H.P.: As a Dean, I facilitate research and academic work, and in my view that also means facilitating partnerships with industry, so that universities don’t remain in their ivory towers. To get real-life solutions we need to partner with people grounded in civil society. We are at the start of this movement of awareness-raising and it’s why I want to enhance relationships like ours with Sodexo, so we can better understand the nature of age-related problems in everyday life. Science is exploding in areas like biotech and assisted devices, but that knowledge needs to be tested in a real-life environment. If you test a new hearing aid in a sound-proof box in a lab, what relevance does it have to ordinary life?

What investments are improving the quality of life of older people?

H.P.: As cities realize the barriers that exist for seniors, we are seeing more benches for people to rest and more shelters and seats around bus stops. But these are more geared to mobility impairment. There is also confusion over legal and regulatory aspects of physical disability and access, which is not the same as an age-friendly right to participation in society. Our content experts here in occupational therapy and healthcare can go into an environment and assess the physical and sensory barriers, and propose solutions. These could include easier access to doors, ramps instead of stairs, handlebars to reduce the chance of losing balance and falling, color markers on stove settings, or signage in larger print. These are all things that make people feel confident in their abilities.

How can research influence policy in this area?

H.P.: It’s about creating opportunities for meaningful dialogue. The Age-Friendly Business Forum in May 2016, for example, brought together academic researchers, government, the private sector and civil society to address a range of areas involving ageing and ageism. The event led to recommendations about how to move forward as an age-friendly society or an age-friendly business provider. The Forum then prompted Canada to stage an event in December 2016 at the United Nations in New York, dedicated to the importance of government action to tackle ageism. The International Longevity Center, which co-hosted the Forum and the U.N. event, is part of an alliance of centers in 17 countries. So, we are taking small but hopefully incremental steps.


Read Dr. Hélène Perrault's full biography.

Dr. Hélène Perrault will participate on the Panel Discussion focused on Seniors: “Designing Life Through the Ages” that will take place on October 16, 2017, at 4:15 pm London Time.