MaRS Centre Launches Series of Discussion on Aging

December 3rd 2010 – In early December the MaRS Centre held what will be the first of many is forums as part of a series on our aging society. This initial session on Social Innovators was the first in the series and focused on innovation in community services for an aging demographic.

The first panel featured Dr. Gerda Kaegi, Professor Emeritus at Ryerson; journalist Judy Steed; and Robin Cardozo, CEO of the Trillium Foundation. The panelists were asked to identify non-traditional or innovative approaches to community care in Canada that they considered successful.

Several interesting examples were given. Dr. Kaegi spoke of the Veterans Independence Program (VIP) and the Aging at Home Program in Deep River Ontario. She pointed out the fact that these programs didn’t only improve the client’s quality of life; they were cost effective. The VIP program costs only costs the Province approximately $3,000 per year, compared to the $43,000 per annum it costs to keep an older person in a nursing home/long term care facility.

Dr. Kaegi’s research concludes that involving people in the decisions that affect them is an essential ingredient to maintaining their quality of life as they age.

She espouses what she calls the “Danish Model”, whereby society facilitates independent living by developing a spirit of community that encourages people to look out for one another. It is reminiscent of Hilary Clinton’s famous use of an old African proverb: “It Takes A Village To Raise A Child”. Small initiatives such as support for housekeeping and gardening may be all it takes to allow a person to stay in their own home.

Dr. Kaegi is a strong advocate for breaking away from the institutional/medical model of geriatric care which is costly and contributes to ageism in society. She challenges the notion that we should we be expected turn our lives over to a hierarchy of medical professionals as we age, when caregivers, friends and neighbours can help maintain a person’s health, sense of purpose and self worth.

Judy Steed has become an advocate for promoting fitness for older Canadians. She has worked with the Ontario Gerontology Society to promote fitness through a “Go Fit” campaign that would give older people a tax credit for enrolling in programs that help keep them fit and eating healthy food. Ms. Steed argued that it would take financial incentives (such as tax breaks) to get people to buy into the idea. Neither the federal nor the provincial governments have endorsed the proposal yet but she is trying to build community support for it. She suggested that more community activists were needed to try and convince governments to back health maintenance measures. She considers these policies both cost effective and successful. Ms. Steed also referred to Dr. John Ratey’s book Spark, that explores the positive connection between exercise and improved brain activity.

Ms. Steed is also a supporter of the community living model practiced in Denmark, noting that they have a greater tolerance for risk in nursing homes and residential facilities. Residents have more freedom and are consulted to a greater degree about decisions, procedures and practices. According to her, this results in a healthier geriatric population that is less drug-dependent and much more functional even amongst residents with advanced dementia.

Robin Cardozo talked about the role of the Trillium Foundation in funding initiatives that enhance quality of life in Ontario communities. According to Robin, Trillium’s grants are currently not awarded on a multi-year basis, but that may change, realizing that some of the outcomes that would be of most benefit in a community may take a few years to achieve. Robin referred to a couple of relatively small grants to community centres, including a grant to a seniors’ choir. The example was intended to illustrate that small amounts of public money spent promoting social engagement can promote good health, counteract loneliness and can avoid much more expensive medical interventions.

The second session featured a presentation by Vickie Cammack, co-founder of Tyze, an online social network that is set up as a support network for people who need help of some kind—disability, frail, chronic illness or at risk. Tyze creates the information and technology bridges between formal and informal caregivers. The network coordinates involvement and provides a practical service to help families, friends, neighbours and health care professionals develop a private, connected network of care. It is a “personal care” network that allows a caregiver support group to plan, schedule, check in, communicate, assign tasks and report. Vickie reports that Tyze helps overcome the sense of isolation that people in need of care often experience, which can lead to depression and general deterioration of health.

Tyze is a for-profit technology company that sets up a customized network for a fee and an ongoing licence fee. With funding from the McConnell Foundation, Tyze has set up “The Belonging Fund” available to Canadian charitable organizations that work with those who are at risk of suffering from isolation.

During the afternoon sessions we heard from 3 UK based organizations that are leaders in promoting healthy aging:

Age UK

Age UK is the new brand of a merger of two British charities: Age Concern and Help the Aged, that provides information, advocacy campaigns, products, training and research for and about older people and an aging society. In a similar vein as CARP, AgeUK is an Issue Leader advocating for older people. To see a series of some TV spots for Age UK featuring actor Ian McKellen, click here


NESTA, (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), is an independent body with a mission to foster enterprise and innovation to make the UK more innovative. NESTA, acts as an incubator of innovation that invests in early-stage companies, informs policy, and delivers programs to inspire others to solve the big challenges of the future. NESTA forms partnerships with innovators, policymakers, community organizations, educators and other investors to bring the best ideas, new capital, and talented people together to develop them further.

One of their thrusts is planning for an aging society. NESTA has called for new ideas about the grey economy and 3rd age entrepreneurs, in a series of lectures: Innovation for a New Old Age


Participle launched in September 2007, with start up funding from NESTA, focused on the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population, developing a social enterprise that helps its older members stay on top of household chores, learn new things, find trusted trades-people, use and develop their skills. It combines both conventional community wisdom with world-class knowledge in specific areas on the assumption that there is something to be learned from both. It also promotes ideas to stimulate public service reform to deal with the big social issues, i.e. an aging society, of our time.

As the day came to an end it became obvious that all of the presentations had a commonality. In all of the case studies the emphasis was on involving older people in the decision-making and the choices that affect their lives. The general thrust was that we needed move away from the reliance on government and public institutions and to put more emphasis on the role of volunteer groups and community-based interventions.