Sheree Kwong See is the province's new seniors advocate – the first person hired specifically for the role. Described as one of the foremost Canadian experts on the psychology of aging, she is a University of Alberta professor who has focused her research on age stereotyping and elder abuse, as well as how those factors affect brain function, Kelly Cryderman reports.
Why does the province need a seniors advocate?
When we think about the aging of the population, by about 2030, we expect about one million people in Alberta are going to be 65 and over. That's about one in five Albertans will be 65 and over – and in Canada the number is about one in four. So this role is a role where we have the ability to say: "Let's really pay attention to that. Let's have a role that helps people navigate the system but, importantly, identify systemic trends that are important in our design of policy and procedures for government programs and policies." This role is really a role that shows a commitment to not only recognizing the population is aging, but thinking about what we might do about that.
It is early days. You began work on Sept. 1. Have you got a sense of what the most pressing issues of your role will be?
We've started to receive many calls and visitors to the office [in Edmonton]. There are a number of issues that are emerging. The first is this issue of how we age and how we can age in place. Many people will be able to stay at home. But at the same time, there are many people who will need assistance – and will need to live in a facility to receive care in the latter part of their life. Most people will tell you they would prefer to have that assistance at home and to stay at home for as long as they can. And a second issue that I'm hearing a lot is ageism. They feel that sometimes as older people they're invisible, they're not being heard. And other pressing issues we're hearing about are issues around transportation – especially in rural Alberta.
That kind of brings me to my next question. Part of your mandate is looking at how the province builds "age-friendly communities." What is an age-friendly community?
Age-friendly is inclusive. And what it means is that we are able to live and learn, we're able to work – we're able to negotiate our community in a way that is barrier-free. You can think of barriers of the physical environment, you can think of the psychological environment, the social environment. An age-friendly community is friendly for all ages. So if you're an older person trying to get to a church, if you're an older person trying to get to a park, you're not finding curbs that prevent you – if you're in a wheelchair – from being able to do that.
You have focused a lot of your research on age stereotyping, and its effect on cognitive performance. Is there really a link between ageism and how well your mind functions as you age?
Yes, there is. We've done work to show that very young children are starting to take in cultural stereotypes. There are positive age stereotypes, but stereotypes tend to be more negative. As adults, we act upon those stereotypes in our interactions with older people. Then as we grow older, we become the older adults that those stereotypes are talking about. You may find yourself speaking in a patronizing way. Then one day, you find that you're the recipient of that kind of talk. And so those stereotypes that you knew as children, that you acted upon as an adult, they become part of your identity as an older person. Your performance might be compromised.
So you don't buy anybody birthday greeting cards making jokes about them becoming infirm, forgetful or decrepit in their old age? Is ageism similar to racism, or sexism?
I don't, because those jokes – even though we think they're funny – there comes a point where they're not funny because they become part of our reality. They become that self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think about racism and sexism – in any work environment, in any school environment – racist jokes are no longer tolerable in our society. Sexist jokes are not tolerable. Yet we still hear jokes about aging as if it's funny. And I think it's just a matter of time before we start to realize jokes about our age are not funny.