By Mike Foster
When you’ve built a career as an expert on aging, perhaps it’s fitting that you never truly retire.
Technically, Louise Plouffe (BA, Religious Studies ʼ74; MA, Psychology ʼ77; and PhD, Psychology ʼ83) retired in 2012 from her job as a research analyst and manager at the Public Health Agency of Canada.
However, her experience in designing Age-Friendly Cities – a World Health Organization initiative covering 100 million people in 28 countries – led to her first post-retirement job. In 2013, she joined the International Longevity Centre (ILC) in Brazil as senior researcher.
Now Plouffe has returned to her alma mater as research director of ILC-Canada, a think tank tackling issues related to longevity and demographic change that is hosted by the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences. Part of the 17-member ILC Global Alliance, the new centre advocates for the needs and rights of older people and promotes evidence-based policies on population aging.
“It was wonderful to come home to uOttawa,” she says.
After earning her master’s degree in psychology, Plouffe began working in the psycho-geriatric unit at the Royal Ottawa Hospital and soon realized she had much to learn: “There was a lot that I didn’t know – and that the field didn’t know. It was a field that was wide open and growing.”
When she conducted psychological tests on people over 75, for example, she referred to the test manuals but found that no norms had been set for this age group. “You were really out on a limb trying to interpret psychological tests for someone of that age,” she says.
She decided to pursue a doctorate, but hardly anyone was researching the psychology of aging at that level. So she combined courses at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University to design her own PhD. Her thesis on the cognitive psychophysiology of learning, attention and memory in older adults owes much to the guidance of her adviser, Professor Robert Stelmack, she says.
After her PhD, she pursued post-doctoral research at Carleton University, followed by four years at l’Université du Québec en Outaouais, where she taught nurses and social workers the basics of gerontology and the psychology of aging.
From research to policy
In 1989, she joined the federal government’s National Advisory Council on Aging (NACA) as a “knowledge broker” helping researchers bring their work to the attention of policy-makers. While at NACA, she also worked to ensure that the findings of a large initiative, the Seniors Independence Research Program, were actually used to inform policy.
In 2005, she was recruited by the WHO to lead the Age-Friendly Cities initiative. Plouffe set the parameters of the initiative and developed a network of academics, researchers and civil society organizations to work on it.
The project’s flagship product was an easy-to-use guide on adapting urban settings to the needs, preferences and capabilities of older people. The idea was for communities to consult older citizens and join forces at the municipal level to design their own solutions. Simple solutions might include enlisting volunteers to drive older people to appointments, or forming a group of seniors to conduct a “pedestrian audit” to assess the safety of sidewalks and crossings.
At its launch, the initiative drew on the experiences of older people from 33 cities in 22 countries. It covered topics such as the condition of streets, parks, housing, transportation and public services, as well as social, civic and recreational participation. The Public Health Agency of Canada provided about $600,000 in seed funding to bring Age-Friendly Cities to Canada and to developing countries.
Plouffe recalls the excitement of seeing her work applied on an international scale.
“I realized that the problems were very similar across the world,” she says. “The same issues about care, health and social support exist everywhere, but there is a difference in severity. I also realized that there were a lot of innovative, small-scale solutions happening in developing countries.”
She appreciates the global platform for these issues that the World Health Organization provides: “When policies and guidelines come from the WHO, it is as though they have come from the Vatican of health. It gets a lot of attention and mileage.”
The pilot projects in Canada rapidly became province-wide programs, starting in British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia. In 2008, the City of Sherbrooke tested the scheme, and Quebec’s minister of families and seniors, Marguerite Blais, made it the cornerstone of the province’s first policy on aging. Now, 900 cities in Canada, including Ottawa and more than 700 cities in Quebec, have adopted the age-friendly communities initiative.
“It works because, at the local level, you bring together all of the players, working together to solve problems,” Plouffe says.
Every second, two people in the world turn 65. By 2031, an expected 23% of Canadians (or 9.6 million people) will be 65 or older. Statistics like these illustrate the importance of taking steps now to address the longevity revolution. They also suggest that Plouffe still has much to do as she continues her life’s work at ILC-Canada.
Louise Plouffe has returned to her alma mater as research director of ILC-Canada, a think tank tackling issues related to longevity and demographic change. Photo: Bonnie Findley.