The Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies is a division of the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences
If you live in a rural Ontario community, you face greater challenges accessing health resources than your urban counterparts. There are fewer health services and supports available nearby, and social isolation is a growing concern, particularly among the elderly. Many rural towns in southern Ontario are seeing population shifts as young people are drawn away by the allure of city life and employment opportunities.
“Research has demonstrated that rural communities are changing and populations are aging. The common thread we see is that managing physical and mental health is harder now than it ever was before,” says Prof. Feng Chang, one of two University of Waterloo professors who are teaming up to address health and well-being challenges in rural Ontario. “Prof. Mair and I are investigating how to build on community connections and how best to offer health services and supports.”
Prof. Feng Chang is an experienced clinical pharmacist with an extensive background in geriatric and rural health care. Prof. Heather Mair has a broad social science background and has spent over fifteen years working with and in rural Canadian communities, examining how recreation and leisure can support the well-being of residents.
“While we both work at UW, it was actually through the Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health that I met Prof. Mair,” reflects Chang. “We were tackling rural health challenges from different angles, supporting research projects through Gateway.”
Addressing rural health issues requires both an understanding of health systems and challenges, and an appreciation of the many social, economic, and political forces that shape the delivery of services,” says Mair. “Together, Prof. Chang and I can address these issues from various perspectives, helping contribute to sustainable and beneficial solutions.
Mair and Chang applied for and received an Interdisciplinary Trailblazer Fund from the University of Waterloo. This fund allows them to combine their expertise and launch Community Conversations, a robust research project that aims to empower volunteers to become advocates for people at-risk in their community.
The project adopts a ‘neighbours helping neighbours’ approach which was developed in other Gateway research and focuses on leveraging existing resources in the community to build resiliency. Mair’s previous research has demonstrated that curling clubs play an important role as social hubs of rural communities, and the Community Conversations project will build off of that.
“We’ve seen that local curling clubs can be vibrant places where social cohesiveness is fostered,” says Mair. “People gather there to plan and deliver events, to socialize, to check in with each other. Thus, we are working to host events for community members in two curling clubs in Huron County.”
Chang and Mair’s team is currently recruiting sites and participants for the Community Conversations events at the curling clubs. These events will gather community members and share important information about health risks, supports, and strategies. Interested volunteers will continue on to receive education on topics such as elder abuse, health coaching dialogues, and health resources such as Southwest Healthline.
Our project is designed to build up resiliency from within the community,” says Chang. “The goal is to connect with local health concerns and build solutions such as creating volunteer health advocates who live in these areas and who will support their community long after our project is concluded.
The team will also conduct qualitative analysis on the Community Conversation events. By analyzing the conversations, the team plans to identify topics like barriers to participating or volunteering in such a project, participant perceptions of their ability to manage their health, challenges navigating the health system, and more.
“We will identify challenges and opportunities that can inform how we design health system supports,” says Chang. “We plan to share our findings and to give policy-makers evidence and context that can help inform decisions about the health system as it applies to rural residents.”
The project’s goals are thus twofold. Firstly, through assessment of the Community Conversations, the team will be able to recommend adjustments to the current health system and to provide insights for consideration in future decision-making. Secondly, by creating peer-health advocate volunteers, the project will build up the social resiliency of the chosen communities.
“We hope to ultimately be able to provide a community-based peer support and system navigation model. These findings could be translated into a toolkit that we could export to other communities where health services are limited,” says Mair.