Health research celebration spans disciplines toward change

Martin Bunch speaks at research celebration

There are two certainties in life – death and taxes, said Professor Tamara Daly at the most recent research celebration at York. Her research focuses on how to better use taxes to make the last few years of life better for those in long-term care in residential settings.

Robert Hache
Robert Hache

The Healthy Individuals, Healthy Communities and Global Health research celebration on Friday, March 7, was co-hosted by three of York’s Faculties (Health, Environmental Studies, Science) and Glendon College, in collaboration with the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation.

Robert Haché, York’s vice-president research & innovation, opened the event with an insight on the breadth of health research happening across both the Keele and Glendon campuses at York University.

“York continues to build and strengthen our national and international profile for health-related research – and in particular building upon the concept of Healthy Individuals, Healthy Communities and Global Healthone of the five areas of opportunity for the strategic development of research that is highlighted in the Strategic Research Plan,” said Haché. “This research celebration offers the opportunity to learn more about the breadth and depth of health-related research and its connections to science and environmental studies research.”

Tamara Daly
Tamara Daly

Daly, of the School of Health Policy & Management, was one of five researchers who presented their work. She pinpointed a critical lack of minimum staffing standards at publicly funded long-term care homes and a 19,000-strong waiting list. The current trend, she said, is to hire personal support workers (PSWs) to further support those in understaffed long-term care residential facilities, but also to employ volunteers and family members as secondary supports. Daly is currently principal investigator on the Invisible Women project, funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. Her team is exploring how occupational health and safety and the division of labour are affected by the informal care provided by people other than those employed at the facility, usually women.

She left audience members with several troubling questions about the state of health policy in the Canadian context, including: Should care be a part of Canadian citizenship? What are the minimum staffing requirements for safety? There were once minimal staffing levels in Ontario, but those were eliminated in the mid-1990s, said Daly. Later this year, she will travel to Norway, Sweden, Germany and the United Kingdom with her research team to explore how long-term care is handled in other jurisdictions to determine if practices elsewhere can inform changes to current regulations in Canada.

Joe Baker
Joe Baker

Professor Joe Baker of the School of Kinesiology & Health Science followed up Daly’s research on long-term care facilities by exploring the question of “What are we capable of?” by studying human development and capacity and the implications for older adults.

To qualify his research, Baker proposed, “When Mozart wrote his best pieces, other people claimed they were unplayable, and yet now they’re part of regular musical development repertoire.” Over the years, people have limited their own capacity for development, said Baker, who also studies how ageism affects society and how an internalization of a stereotype, particularly the notion that older adults are expected to slow down, can limit or determine your capabilities. Once you predict people’s attitudes towards aging, he has found you can also predict their longevity and cardiovascular health. Ultimately, Baker wants to build an accurate profile of what healthy age-related decline looks like, and he is curious whether elite athletes are the “ideal” model of aging, due to their physical activity and positive body-outlook, or not.

Guy Poulx
Guy Proulx

“Policymakers are in for a surprise because we’ve just graduated from a young world to an older world,” said the following speaker, Professor of psychology at Glendon College Guy Proulx, citing international statistics indicating that there were more people in the world over age 65 than under age 15. The number of people 65 and older in the world is expected to increase by 160 per cent by 2040, Proulx added. In Canada in 1800, there were no centenarians; but in 2060 there is expected to be 80,000 centenarians – an unprecedented growth that will put strain on the already struggling health-care system.

His research complements that of Baker’s in the respect that it reinforces that older adults are different now than they were 100 years ago – they are richer, better educated, proactive in advocating for their needs and have more resources (and according to Baker, more likely to push their physical limits). As a result, there has been a paradigm shift in health-care services in Canada, from young to older, from curing diseases to preventing them, and from a focus on nursing and long-term care facilities to at-home care.

Following the health researchers, the Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies, Noël Sturgeon, introduced a different take on “healthy communities” by introducing Professor Martin Bunch, whose focus on ecohealth supports healthy communities and thus healthy individuals. His research also extends to the social and environmental determinants of health in India, bringing a global perspective to health research at York University.

Martin Bunch
Martin Bunch presents his research at the Health Individuals, Healthy Communities and Global Health research celebration

Bunch explored two slums near Chennai in India, which were deemed worst-case scenarios, with no access to urban services, recurring outbreaks of cholera and a high incidence of narcotics abuse. These communities were very resilient but resistant to change, which is why Bunch and his investigators held community meetings and tried to understand the gendered life of the community by conducting socio-economic and health surveys.

Dawn Bazely
Dawn Bazely

By encouraging residents to form relationships with external partners and jump-starting such relationships, they were able to envision an alternate future that would be as resilient as their initial resistance. By actively taking a community organizing approach, the community began to see benefits, including linkages with an area hospital, a children’s hygiene program, accessible latrines, HIV/AIDS awareness and improved drainage, among others. “Once they reached out, more people saw them and wanted to work with them,” said Bunch.

The final speaker, Professor Dawn Bazely of the Faculty of Science, had a strong stance on the role ecologists can play in the environment. “Ecologists are not being heard, but we also can’t save the world in ecology departments,” she said.

“We need academics to become interdisciplinary, because ‘truth’ doesn’t automatically lead to policies, like we would like to think.” That is why Bazely is doing research on how disenfranchised people will be affected by and adapt to climate change and its effects. “There’s big data in ecology,” said Bazely, “but we now need to turn that into knowledge and information, and really look at knowledge as a nutrient.”

Her biggest takeaway, which can be said for all of the researchers, is that health policies that affect the lives of people everywhere are formed in “iterative and web-like ways”, which is why researchers must work to build relationships with a variety of people in different industries and levels of government to provide a chance for their findings to impact society and bring change.