A Toronto public library is trying to combat Canadian ageism through storytelling — allowing library attendees to “check out” seniors for 30-minute conversations.
This “human library” initiative, called “UnJudge Aging,” was a first step in a larger campaign to debunk discrimination against Canada’s senior population, offering seniors an opportunity to explain who they are and where they came from.
The event took place Saturday at the Northern District Library, part of the Toronto Public Library network. It was intended to open up dialogue to a major demographic of Canadians that one researcher says is widely dismissed.
“Ageism is a huge issue,” Lyn MacDonald, professor and co-director of University of Toronto’s Institute for Life Course and Aging Collaborative Program, told CTVNews.ca over the phone prior to the event. “Nobody wants to talk about it. [Many Canadians] don’t care about older people.”
MacDonald, the principle researcher behind the “UnJudge Aging” program, hoped that giving seniors the space to tell their stories would deepen connections and bridge gaps that alienate and isolate an aging community.
According to MacDonald’s research, six in 10 older individuals over the age of 66 say they have been treated unfairly because of their age. Seven in 10 agree that Canadian society values younger generations more than older generations, triggering psychological distress and social isolation, she said.
MacDonald explained that common behaviours towards seniors damage the self-esteem of older people and foster unhealthy attitudes towards aging.
“It causes depression. It causes withdrawal. It causes all kinds of trouble,” MacDonald said.
She explained that research has proven that promoting spaces for dialogue is an effective way for combatting general discrimination. The concept of a “human library,” she said, has already been applied to numerous marginalized communities.
“‘Human Libraries’ are now being used by corporations as a much more effective way of dealing with discrimination,” MacDonald said. “Nobody has ever done it for ageism.”
Participants of the human library event, called “readers,” were surveyed prior to their engagement with seniors, called “books.”
A questionnaire booklet titled “Relating to Old People Evaluation” was given to readers to fill-out before their conversations, with the aim of determining biases that could negatively or positively affect interactions.
The survey included questions like, “Do you tell an old person they ‘don’t look that old’ when you discover their age?” and, “Do you send birthday cards to old people that joke about how old they are?”
MacDonald explained that ageist tendencies are often entrenched in cultural interactions, enforcing – sometimes unintentionally – discriminatory behaviours that deliver a damaging trope: old people don’t matter.
Renee Climans, a social worker at Toronto’s Baycrest Hospital, was one of the main co-ordinators of the event, helping to select a roster of more than 15 seniors with compelling stories to share.
“The main idea of the project was to really reframe aging and to see older people as capable and effective,” she told CTVNews.ca over the phone.
Climans sought to find senior participants that covered a wide range of life experiences. Among them were a lawyer-turned-artist, a palliative care health-care worker, a renewable energy advocate, a journalist and a couple published authors.
These “books,” Climans said, expressed the lives of seniors that are far more expansive than the limiting stereotypes attributed to old people.
One of the seniors, Kaye Joachim, is originally from Sri Lanka, and she told readers about her time growing up in Canada and how her life as an immigrant helped shape her sense of self.
Another “book,” Michael Gordon, a geriatrician, told readers about his experience growing up in Brooklyn and later travelling throughout Europe. He studied medicine in Scotland and moved to Canada during the Vietnam War.
Participant Karen Weiler spoke about her career in law – and how aging gracefully has become a large part of her retirement.
“Don’t let others define who you are and what you can do,” Weiler told readers.
“The results were very positive,” Climans told CTVNews.ca following the event.
MacDonald said the experience helped seniors feel a sense of empowerment.
“Somebody actually really listened to them for a change and valued what they had to say,” she said.