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Sauvé Series Event Promotes Belonging for Older Persons

sauve_nov13-17 Bethany
Bethany Brown, Researcher, Health and Human Rights Division, Human Rights Watch
November 21, 2017

On November 13th, the Fall 2017 Jeanne Sauvé Forum Series on Social Connectedness and International Development continued with its 9th weekly seminar of the fall series: Can Social Connectedness Act as a “Preventative Medicine” for Older People?

The Sauvé Series, created by Professor Kim Samuel in collaboration with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation, explores the root causes of social isolation, along with strategies for building social connectedness through international policy and program development. It began last fall with weekly discussions at the historic Jeanne Sauvé House in Montreal covering a variety of topics, from the UN Sustainable Development Goals to refugees and human rights. The Series is also closely linked with Professor Samuel’s fourth-year seminar course on social connectedness at McGill University, the first of its kind.

The event featured experts from both the legal and medical fields, including Bethany Brown, Researcher in the Health and Human Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, and Dr. Shamiel McFarlane, MSc candidate in Family Medicine at McGill University. The discussion focused on how individuals, government and community organizations can work together to embrace ageing population and identify innovative, intergenerational pathways to social connectedness.

Professor Samuel opened with facts and trends on older people, highlighting the rise in ageing populations and the need to address the subsequent global, social and economic impacts. She highlighted the challenges facing older people around the globe – ageism, employment discrimination, and inadequate healthcare – all of which contribute to social isolation. With the rising tide of barriers to connectedness affecting older persons, Professor Samuel asked the audience to consider “how can we ensure that development does not come at the expense of millions of socially isolated seniors around the world?”

Kim Samuel, Professor of Practice, Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University; President, The Samuel Family Foundation

“There is no silver bullet to this issue,” Professor Samuel explained. “We must reinforce a rights-based approach. Ensuring the elderly have someone to talk to, or designing communities that provide spaces that encourage contact,” are all simple ways to ensure that the dignity of older people is being upheld. Before turning to the speakers, Professor Samuel invited the audience to think about these opportunities in their own lives and to think globally about the issue.

Bethany Brown opened with a powerful definition of human rights, as “the globally agreed upon standard below which dignity cannot survive.” Too often, older people’s rights are violated, and such violations go undocumented and unpunished. Bethany emphasized the need to expose and address this phenomenon, because “hopefully old age will happen to all of us. What do we want that to look like?”

Bethany Brown, Researcher, Health and Human Rights Division, Human Rights Watch

Bethany went on to outline several issues affecting older people. First, culture is not a substitute for rights, whereas “rights govern the relationship between governments and their citizens.” Hence, we must consider how older people’s rights can be applied in law, and not just in cultural practices and traditions. Second, application becomes difficult at a global scale because there is “no coherent international framework for identifying and enforcing the rights of older people, or allowing them to claim them.” To move forward, Bethany said that we must let go of our assumption that it is easier or more comfortable for society to let older people become invisible. Rather, we need to recognize and uphold their rights, and include older people in data collection to inform policy and programming. “Two years is a lot of time, two months is a lot of time, two days is a lot of time. For as long as any of us have left, we have the right to be treated like we belong here,” Bethany concluded.

Shamiel, a native of Jamaica, is focusing her Masters research on how front-line care and primary healthcare workers can alleviate social isolation amongst older people. Shamiel started off by stating that developing countries, like Jamaica, are experiencing a much higher increase in ageing populations than developed countries, which poses a unique set of challenges. Her findings so far have pointed to many issues, such as inadequate physical infrastructure and lack of education. There are not enough working public ambulances in Jamaica to reach isolated older people, and one trip in a private ambulance can cost as much as a month’s pension plan. Shamiel also remarked that “physicians live in a bubble. They do not know the reality of social connections on the ground and they are not taught to consider the social determinants of health.” This has led to a heavier burden on social workers to manage multiple communities by themselves. Shamiel recounted how many care workers pay out of pocket to send socially isolated older people to the hospital in a taxi.

Dr. Shamiel Alexis McFarlane, MSc Candidate in Family Medicine, McGill University

In order to change the system towards people-centered care, Shamiel stressed that we first need to listen. “There is a disconnect between ministries, physicians, health workers, and the patients themselves.” Members of the community must be involved in discussions around health and policy. By spending time in communities in rural parts of Jamaica, Shamiel discovered how social isolation and poor health outcomes can exacerbate one another. She is now determined to use her findings to help stakeholders listen to each other. “We all benefit from having our grandparents around. We need to be caring for them and listening to them.”

Leading off the discussion portion of the evening was Kim Boucher-Morin, a Social Connectedness Fellow and Project Coordinator at TakingITGlobal. Drawing on her experience volunteering at a facility for older people, Kim recounted a poignant story about a resident couple who were not allowed to see each other when the wife became very ill and was placed in intensive care. She subsequently died and her husband died soon after “of loneliness,” many residents speculated. “How did we come to value efficiency over the lives of human beings?” Kim prompted.

Kim Boucher Morin, Project Coordinator at TakingITGlobal; Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

One audience member asked the panelists how they would suggest putting these discussions into practice with their own older family members. Both Bethany and Shamiel remarked that the first step is recognizing that they may be feeling isolated. After that, it is about asking them how they are feeling.

A student asked whether we need to get rid of nursing facilities altogether. Bethany answered that “while most older people would say they would like to live in their homes for the rest of their lives, others would choose to live in homes with other people. Governments must commit to funding for homes that allow people to live safe and dignified lives. It is often not recognized that older people have a right to live in a community, just like everyone else.”

Shamiel closed the event with a call to action to the medical community: “We have to teach medical students to place as much emphasis on the social aspect of care as the physical.”

The next Sauvé Series event will feature a discussion on exploring pathways to creating more connected and holistic classrooms at all levels of education. The panel will feature Ian Skelly, Writer for HRH The Prince of Wales and BBC Broadcaster; Richard Dunne, Principal, Ashley Primary School, Walton on the Thames (UK); Jennifer Brennan, Executive Director, The Samuel Family Foundation; Jeremy Monk, Candidate, Masters in Arts, Columbia University and Social Connectedness Fellow 2017; and Lisa Trimble, Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University. For more information and to register for this event, please visit