It was only a brief message in an AGE-WELL internal email that led to an extraordinary experience for Alexander Moreno. Luckily he opened the email rather than delete it. It was an opportunity for interested researchers to travel to Chile to attend the Third International Summer School on Aging at the University of Chile.
“It sounded interesting. That could be a fit for me,” he said in an interview from Montreal.
In fact, Moreno was unusually well-qualified. The member of the AGE-WELL network is based at McGill University, a psychologist/neuropsychologist and postdoctoral fellow in the faculty of medicine. But he was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, immigrating to Canada 6 years ago to pursue his studies and research in aging.
His interest in the field was nurtured in his native country where he ran a memory clinic focusing on issues surrounding dementia.
Now, unexpectedly, he was handed a chance to return to South America to expand his knowledge and experience and to do so via conversations in his native language.
In January he flew south to the austral summer, joined by two other members of the AGE-WELL Network: Judith Sixsmith, Co-Lead of the Crosscutting Activity area in Transdisciplinary Working and Mei Lan Fang, Research Associate at Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology Research Centre. He had never met them in person before.
Professor Sixsmith gave the keynote address of the conference on gerontechnology highlighting AGE-WELL’s mandate to develop technology and services to support the health and social care of older adults and caregivers. Mei presented scoping reviews conducted in collaboration with other graduate students on the etiological, ethical and political implications of mild cognitive impairment and technology.
Arriving in Santiago, Alexander expected a week’s worth of lectures. Instead, it was a much richer, fuller and more practical experience. There was a whirlwind of meetings with people involved in the field: researchers, older adults, government officials and industry. And instead of taking notes in a lecture hall, he found himself plunged into the development of a new innovation: a smart phone application designed to help ease the isolation sometimes felt by older adults. Moreno was able to offer his experience gained while working on the AGE-WELL sponsored research project, MovIT-PLUS, an initiative that proposes to build new support systems to help caregivers understand how to use assistive technologies.
“I was attending just as a student but they gave me the status of co-supervisor in one of these workshops and it turned out to be a very good thing. Because it led to a complete product at the end,” he said.
“What we do here (in Canada) to organize a project in one or two years, we did in four days, basically.”
Along with his personal knowledge and passion, Moreno brought along the AGE-WELL attitude about the importance of having different disciplines collaborating to deliver a superior result—an ethos that the Chileans were already embracing. His co-supervisor was a geriatrician. Other members of the team included an anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist, and physical therapist.
“We worked together as if we had been working together for years. Chilean people are really welcoming and kind and generous.”
Despite the obvious cultural differences between Canada and Chile, Moreno noted some key similarities: both are large countries, with challenges caused by geographic isolation and both have substantial indigenous populations who have unique needs. He found keen interest in the AGE-WELL network and in the potential of technology.
“They want to learn how we do things because they find that the way AGE-WELL is structured is a good model that they’d like to adapt,” he said.
“Contrary to what people might think of Latin America, there are lots of things happening with technological approaches and they are very creative and smart people doing good things there. With very few resources.”
At the end of the summer school Moreno’s group and two others all made presentations describing their concepts. His team turned out to be a hit.
“People fell in love with the project because it was perfectly suited to the context of the problem, and could be feasible—all because we had the opportunity to evaluate it from the perspective of all the different stakeholders that we had the opportunity to speak with,” he said.
It was chosen to apply for funding and Moreno offered his assistance in preparing the application. He clearly made an impression on his hosts as he was invited to join them as an international member of the Chilean Transdisciplinary Network on Aging.
Now back home in Montreal, Moreno looks forward to the summer when AGE-WELL will return the favour and invite one or more researchers from Chile to attend their inaugural Summer Institute this July in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. Titled “Co-creating Possibilities: Living Well With Dementia,” the week-long summer institute will engage trainees in workshops, lectures, and activities on participatory, user-centred design.