Dr. Susan Kirkland: 2020 AGE-WELL Honorary Fellow Award Recipient

From growing up in British Columbia to attending university in Ontario and taking a position as a professor at Dalhousie University in her current home, Halifax, Susan Kirkland has gained knowledge and experience, literally, from coast to coast. Her roots in health and aging research run deep. She has been instrumental in the development of game-changing studies around older adults and technology in her role as project lead with OA-INVOLVE, which focuses on engaging older adults in research, and as one of three principal investigators since the inception of the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), one of the largest studies of its kind.

Dr. Kirkland’s involvement with AGE-WELL dates back to its inception in 2015. She was one of its earliest supporters. As a member of AGE-WELL’s Board of Directors, she has strengthened the network’s governance and brought critical insight as a representative of the network’s research programs. Her commitment to the meaningful inclusion and engagement of older adults in research has helped shape the approach to “co-creation” for which AGE-WELL is revered.

An epidemiologist by training, Dr. Kirkland has a long history of working on multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral projects. She has been involved in a large number of epidemiologic studies, nationally and internationally, throughout her career. While working on her PhD at the University of Toronto, Dr. Kirkland pivoted her focus. “I was looking at hormone replacement therapy and its impact on cardiovascular disease in women,” she recalls. “I started doing chronic disease epidemiology, and then I realized my primary interest was health and ways to maintain wellness and quality of life as we age.”

Though technology is central to Dr. Kirkland’s work, she is not a technology developer; her passion is the role technology plays in increasing autonomy, independence, and wellbeing. “My push is to make it accessible,” she says, “and to make it usable, and ensure it actually works for older adults in a way that sometimes developers don’t focus on.”

Dr. Kirkland at the launch of AGE-WELL’s national innovation hub called APPTA (Advancing Policies and Priorities in Technology and Aging) in Fredericton in 2017.

She brings heart and soul to research beyond the data. Doing research, she says, is not only about having strong technical skills: “It’s about being able to hear the voices of others. In particular, the voices of the people engaged in the research that I’m doing.” Dr. Kirkland is currently a co-lead on an AGE-WELL project called Living More with SMART Technology. The goal is to support technology development that improves the independence, functioning, wellbeing and quality of life of older adults in continuing care, and to create scalable and sustainable person-centred technology solutions in both long-term care and home-care settings.

It was through her research that Dr. Kirkland was first introduced to AGE-WELL. She was running a project on assistive devices used for in-home care. Dr. Andrew Sixsmith, now AGE-WELL’s scientific co-director, was involved in that project. “When AGE-WELL was developed, Andrew reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in becoming a part of it,” she recalls. “I said yes and submitted a project that ended up being the OA-INVOLVE project. It all started there.”

Dr. Kirkland says she is delighted to receive an AGE-WELL Honorary Fellow Award—and to have Ron Beleno as a fellow 2020 recipient. “The type of work that we do is complementary, so it’s great we’ve both received this recognition. AGE-WELL is a remarkable organization. I’ve been involved in so many facets of it. As a member of the Board, it’s an entity I have a lot of respect for, from top to bottom. So to be recognized by an organization that I hold in such high esteem means so much.”