Combining nature with research and innovation to support aging Canadians

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Aging is a natural process and part of life that everyone experiences differently and to assist Canadians in living and growing old with independence and optimal health, research at the University of Waterloo is expanding knowledge and developing new interventions and technologies.

Within the Network for Aging Research (NAR), over 100 researchers across the University with vast and interdisciplinary expertise in health, science, engineering, mathematics and computer science, environment, and the social sciences are advancing research and solutions to mitigate or address a myriad of challenges associated with aging.

Physical activity is an important part of staying healthy particularly for older adults who experience arthritis, says Monica Maly, Professor, Kinesiology and Health Sciences and a University Research Chair. She uses biomechanical methods to evaluate the impact of physical activity on joint health, with an aim to develop guidelines for physical activity that promotes health and productivity while minimizing risks for arthritis progression.

Physical activity also improves brain function and is linked to dementia risk reduction. The prevalence of dementia almost doubles every five years after the age of 65, says Laura Middleton, Associate Professor, School of Public Health Sciences.

“Within a generation, we expect over a million people in Canada will have dementia, as more people live to ages when dementia is common,” says Professor Middleton.

Her research identifies ways to reduce dementia risk in later life and improve the wellbeing of people living with dementia, and their families, using approaches from several disciplines including neuroscience, exercise physiology, epidemiology, and community-based research. She focuses on the impact of physical activity alone or in combination with other lifestyle interventions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted older adults in unique ways spurring new and further research.

“Since the pandemic began in 2020, there has been a growing concern for the health and wellbeing of older adults,” says Justine Giosa, Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Health Sciences at Waterloo and Managing Director of the SE Research Centre at SE Health. “Although the physical effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are a major focus, there are also rising concerns about the unmet mental health needs of aging Canadians.”

Funding provided by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) is being used to co-design mental health conversations between older adults and health and social care providers in community health settings across Canada.

Like younger generations of Canadians, older adults are also able to benefit from new technologies including robots.

MyJay, a social robot initially designed for children, was developed by Kerstin Dautenhahn, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Canada 150 Chair in Intelligent Robotics. She is currently researching how other social robots can be used in long-term care homes for games among seniors and their grandchildren.

A study led by Moojan Ghafurian, Research Assistant Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Social and Intelligent Robotics Research Laboratory found that openness to buying and using social robots increased significantly for those whose lives were affected by COVID-19. The research, a collaboration of Professors Ghafurian, Dautenhahn, and Colin Ellard, in Psychology, found participants who reported high levels of loneliness were more likely to say they would purchase a robot for companionship. While Professor Dautenhahn has been passionate about robots for a long time, the pandemic has increased her interest in how robots can be used as companions during times of crisis. The ethics and responsible use of technology such as robots is also a vibrant area of research at Waterloo.

Work underway by Jennifer Boger, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Systems Design Engineering, and Director of the Intelligent Technologies for Wellness and Independent Living Lab focuses on intelligent technologies to enhance the safety, health, wellbeing, and independence of older adults and people with disabilities. Her research involves research across multiple disciplines to reflect the needs, abilities, and contexts of the people using them. A central theme to her research is the development of ambient zero-effort technologies – technologies that blend into a person’s environment and operates with little or no perceived effort.

“Technology holds great potential for all sorts of ways for people to engage in all aspects of life,” says Professor Boger. “As researchers we need to go beyond supporting a goal people want to achieve to support more complex and dynamic concepts such as values and choices.”