Jayna Holroyd-Leduc opens the event, Engaging Together: Exploring Current and Future Research on Aging, on June 4.
Jayna Holroyd-Leduc opens the event, Engaging Together: Exploring Current and Future Research on Aging, on June 4. Brittany DeAngelis

June 6, 2024

A commitment to age inclusivity: Assessing the university’s age-friendly practices

The Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging is leading efforts to create an age-inclusive campus environment for all

In a world where the population is getting older and ageism is a reality, the importance of age inclusivity within higher education institutions is gaining prominence. Consequently, the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging at the O’Brien Institute for Public Health embarked on a journey to assess the University of Calgary’s age friendliness to strengthen its equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives. 

Under the guidance of Dr. Chantelle Zimmer, PhD, manager of the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging, a multidisciplinary research team undertook the first evaluation of UCalgary’s commitment to age inclusivity, established when it was designated an Age-Friendly University (AFU) in 2019. This assessment engaged students, faculty and staff campus wide, demonstrating a dedication to understanding perspectives and experiences across all levels.

Chantelle Zimmer

Chantelle Zimmer led a multidisciplinary research team that undertook the first evaluation of UCalgary’s commitment to age inclusivity.

"Becoming an age-friendly university isn't just a title, it's a commitment to shaping an institutional landscape where age is not a barrier to learning, working and thriving. We want to not only embrace older adults — a group traditionally underserved within post-secondary institutions — but celebrate the wealth of knowledge and experience that they bring to our campus community," says Zimmer.

Dr. Jayna Holroyd-Leduc, MD, is academic lead of the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging and department head, medicine, in the Cumming School of Medicine. She says, "Our commitment to age inclusivity reflects our understanding that diverse age groups enrich the academic environment. We are dedicated to ensuring that every member of our community, regardless of age, feels valued and supported."

The AFU designation, originating from the Age-Friendly University Global Network, signifies UCalgary’s dedication to creating an environment that addresses the needs of learners and workers of all ages. By joining this global initiative, UCalgary aligned itself with a consortium of higher education institutions striving to combat ageism and enhance campus opportunities for older adults.

Receiving the AFU designation holds profound significance for the university, says Zimmer. It signifies a formal acknowledgment of its efforts to promote age inclusivity and serves as a catalyst for further initiatives aimed at fostering an environment where campus community members can thrive irrespective of age, she says. 

Assessing UCalgary's age friendliness

To conduct the assessment, the research team used a modified version of the Age-Friendly Inventory and Campus Climate Survey to evaluate how friendly UCalgary is to people of all ages. This tool helped the team look at what the university was doing in terms of age-friendly practices and how people feel about them. Ten administrators, 178 faculty, 608 staff, and 1,167 students participated.

The evaluation encompassed various UCalgary areas such as infrastructure, policies and the treatment of older members of the campus community. While the findings suggest the university demonstrates some degree of age-friendliness, there remain areas for further enhancement to ensure an even more inclusive environment. Areas for improvement span a range of practices related to teaching and learning, research, human resources, student affairs, services and resources, and outreach and engagement.

UCalgary does have programs tailored to older campus community members, such as pre-retirement financial advising services, special orientation sessions, individualized tutoring for academic subjects, and career support tailored toward second careers. The assessment found awareness among students, faculty and staff around these programs was mixed. 

“The lack of awareness of some of the supports the university offers for older staff, faculty and students was concerning,” says Zimmer. 

UCalgary advisers are trained to work with adults and older students but less than a third of students, faculty, and staff thought academic supports and advising services were equipped to help these learners.

Webinars and resources are available to help faculty deliver classes to older students in an accessible format. These supports focus on universal design for learning, blended learning and online learning. However, only 12 per cent of faculty were aware of this.

Armed with these insights, the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging is poised to develop an action plan for the university to bolster its age-friendly initiatives, says Zimmer. 

"Our assessment has provided invaluable direction for the institution to become more age friendly. By addressing identified gaps, we can better serve the needs of our aging population and combat ageism within our community."

Freda Okoma

“Older learners bring diverse perspectives and life experiences that enrich classroom discussions,” says Freda Okoma.

Voices from campus

Along with the assessment findings, the perspective of older university students, faculty and staff offers valuable insight into the lived experience of navigating an academic environment as a mature learner. 

Nearly three-quarters of all survey respondents said that having more adult and older students at UCalgary would be beneficial. Freda Okoma, BCR'22, whose journey at the university began when she decided to go back to school in her mid-’30s, agrees. 

"Fostering age inclusivity at universities benefits everyone. Older learners bring diverse perspectives and life experiences that enrich classroom discussions. For the university, it means a richer, more diverse academic community that reflects the real world."

Okoma has been studying at UCalgary for the past seven years. She completed an undergraduate degree in 2022 and is now working on a master’s degree in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies. Once her master’s is complete, she plans on applying to medical school. 

“After having my children and following my husband to a different city for his career, I was ready to do something meaningful for me. I felt like I could do more with my education. With a little encouragement from my family, I applied and got in.”

Her experience highlights both the challenges and rewards of returning to education later in life. 

“The university has been welcoming and supportive during my time here but I do think it can do more to make the learning experience more inclusive for older adults,” she says. 

“Offering more flexible schedules, including a wider selection of evening and weekend classes, and more online options would be very helpful.”

The needs of older students are different than those of students who recently graduated high school, she says. 

“We have families, we have different priorities — and it can seem as though the university experience doesn’t cater to our needs as much. We don't have the luxury of time to experiment with different paths — and we need a different type of guidance and support to balance work, family and studies effectively."

Enhancing UCalgary’s age friendliness has been prioritized within the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging’s 2023-28 strategic plan. Over the coming months, the Centre on Aging will be developing an action plan to target areas it can influence and support using its resources, says Zimmer. The centre will also provide guidance and tangible supports for UCalgary administrative units and faculties to establish more age-inclusive policies and practices. 

About the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging

The Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging at the O’Brien Institute for Public Health is a cross-faculty aging hub dedicated to creating an ecosystem for innovation in age-inclusive environments, practices, and policies to optimize the health and well-being of older adults. The centre builds interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral partnerships and leads collaborative innovations centred on older adults through education, research, and community engagement.

Chantelle Zimmer is an adjunct assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology. She is manager of the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging. 

 Jayna Holroyd-Leduc is an academic geriatrician and associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s departments of Medicine, where she is also department head, and Community Health Sciences. She is the academic lead of the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging and the UCalgary Brenda Strafford Chair in Geriatric Medicine. She is a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.