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Interview: The Power of Elder Circles


Dr. Trudy Medcalf

Dr. Trudy Medcalf

New Canadian research shows that conversation groups enhance the lives of older people and reveal the rich, multi-faceted experience of old age.

In 2013, Dr. Trudy Medcalf launched a new elder circle initiative online. She reported her findings in Online Circles: a Guide to their Creation and Benefits (Sheridan Elder Research Centre, Oakville, Ont., Canada). Her work on elder circles was featured recently on an episode of Ideas on CBC Radio.

Dr. Medcalf is a social gerontologist and part-time distance educator in the bachelor of gerontology program at Laurentian University (Sudbury, Ont., Canada).

AHB reached her in Ottawa, Ont., Canada.

Ruth Dempsey: Your new research explores the potential of online elder circles. Can you give me a snapshot of the participants?

Trudy Medcalf: As it turned out, the first six to respond to the online recruitment flyer were all women. Their ages ranged from 70 to 87 and all were living in their own homes. They came from a variety of social and educational backgrounds.

All had some experience with the computer and the Internet, although none had previously engaged in online learning.

My idea of an elder circle involves small groups of people meeting regularly in facilitated conversation about their experience of growing old.

These participants were curious and open to new learning, and several mentioned their interest in contributing to research that may help others.

RD: Why did you ask the women to prepare a short autobiography before the project began?

TM: I asked each participant to prepare an autobiography of 150 words. And I did the same.

As some pointed out, 150 words allows little space for the recording of a long and complex life. But, as we began our project, it gave the women an opportunity to choose the essential elements they wished to share with the group.

I also asked them to post their autobiographies to our online elder circle website. This provided an opportunity for each of them to access and try out the site, and to let me know if they were having difficulty with access, navigation or posting.

These story "stubs" were revisited many times during the project. The stories became richer as the women grew more engaged and more eager to connect deeply with each other.

RD: The women bonded quickly. One described a "feeling of comfortable companionship." Did this surprise you?

TM: It did surprise me – a happy surprise. I had wondered about how we would create, and indeed if we could create, the safe, secure and respectful environment that can happen within a face-to-face situation, all sitting around a table together.

The six members of our online circle had never met. They communicated throughout the project solely by posting to a secure, password-protected website, with neither visual nor auditory component.

That was for me an important feature of the project. The simplest format was my method of choice. Within days, that "feeling of comfortable companionship" was generated by the participants themselves.

RD: I was stuck by how the experience transformed how the women thought about their own aging.

TM: Yes, this kind of awareness is something I have witnessed many times.

You see, I believe we have understood later life to be a time characterized by decline and diminishment, yet there must be more to this life stage.

Commenting on the collaborative nature of the experience, one participant said, "You could actually feel people blossoming in the group."

Another woman remarked, "Learning about the different aspects [of aging] was like a butterfly when it comes out of the cocoon."

And another said: "I believe that as each of us catches a glimpse of what has occurred in the lives of others within our circle, we recognize and respect their strengths and resiliency. And we can see that that also applies to ourselves."

The essential, it seems to me, is that there be no predetermined curriculum. A curriculum says to participants, "This is what I think you need to talk about or to learn."

And how could I know that?

Instead, the experience needs to be elder-driven and as much as possible elder-led.

My job is to pay close attention to the evolving conversation in the group, and to augment the learning with supplementary materials, such as:

  • some key questions
  • a website, or
  • a YouTube video.

I sometimes use a piece of writing, which might include an article from Aging Horizons Bulletin.

RD: So, what is your next step?

TM: I am fascinated by the experience of growing old and by the potential it holds for all of us. I am not talking about seniors in spandex on a mountain bike but about the value of being an old person in Canadian society.

There’s work to be done.

One way I hope to continue to make a contribution is through both online and face-to-face elder circles.

Among other things, I believe elder circles can be used to:

  • extend the reach of learning organizations, such as Institutes for Learning in Retirement
  • support those who are feeling socially isolated
  • initiate intergenerational projects
  • enable health applications, or
  • as one component of a more complex delivery system.

The elder circle model, for example, has been used successfully to develop a suicide prevention strategy in southern Ontario.

In fact, I have another online elder circle scheduled for the fall involving older men, who live alone. And I have recently received funding for a two-year pilot project to help address the issue of older adults and social isolation here in Ottawa. I am very excited about the potential of both initiatives.

As I say, there’s work to be done.