Toronto’s ‘human library’ tackles ageism in Canada
A Toronto public library is trying to combat Canadian ageism through storytelling – allowing library visitors to “check out” seniors for 30-minute conversations.
This ‘human library’ initiative, called ‘UnJudge Aging’, was the first step in a larger campaign to demystify discrimination against Canada’s older population, providing seniors with an opportunity to explain who they are and where they come from.
The event took place Saturday at the North District Library, part of the Toronto Public Library System. It was meant to open the dialogue to an important demographic of Canadians who, according to one researcher, are largely shunned.
“Ageism is a huge issue,” Lyn MacDonald, professor and co-director of the Institute for Life Course and Aging Collaborative Program at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca by phone ahead of the event. “Nobody wants to talk about it. [Many Canadians] don’t care about old people.
MacDonald, the principal researcher behind the “UnJudge Aging” program, hoped that giving older people the space to tell their stories would deepen the connections and close the gaps that alienate and isolate an aging community.
According to MacDonald’s research, six in ten seniors over the age of 66 say they have been treated unfairly because of their age. Seven in 10 agree that Canadian society values younger generations more than older generations, which triggers psychological distress and social isolation, she said.
MacDonald explained that common behaviors toward the elderly damage older adults’ self-esteem and promote unhealthy attitudes toward aging.
“It causes depression. It causes withdrawal. It causes all kinds of problems,” MacDonald said.
She explained that research has proven that promoting spaces for dialogue is an effective way to tackle general discrimination. The concept of the “human library,” she said, has already been applied to many marginalized communities.
“‘Human libraries’ are now being used by companies as a much more effective way to fight discrimination,” MacDonald said. “No one ever did it for ageism.”
Participants in the Human Library event, referred to as ‘readers’, were interviewed prior to their engagement with elders, referred to as ‘books’.
A questionnaire booklet titled “Relating to Old People Evaluation” was given to readers to complete before their conversations, with the aim of determining any biases that might negatively or positively affect interactions.
The survey included questions such as: “Do you tell an older person that they ‘don’t look that old’ when you find out their age?” and “Do you send birthday cards to old people who joke about their age?”
MacDonald explained that ageist tendencies are often rooted in cultural interactions, enforcing — sometimes unwittingly — discriminatory behaviors that deliver a damaging trope: older people don’t matter.
Renee Climans, a social worker at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto, was one of the main event coordinators, helping to select a list of more than 15 seniors with compelling stories to share.
“The main idea behind the project was to really reframe aging and see older people as capable and effective,” she told CTVNews.ca by phone.
Climans sought to find senior participants who covered a wide range of life experiences. Among them were a lawyer-turned-artist, a hospice health worker, a renewable energy advocate, a journalist, and a few published authors.
These “books,” Climans said, express the lives of older people that are far broader than the limiting stereotypes attributed to older people.
One of the seniors, Kaye Joachim, is from Sri Lanka, and she told readers that she grew up in Canada and how her life as an immigrant helped shape her self-esteem.
Another “book”, Michael Gordon, a geriatrician, told readers about his experience growing up in Brooklyn and later traveling through Europe. He studied medicine in Scotland and moved to Canada during the Vietnam War.
Attendee Karen Weiler spoke about her career in law and how aging gracefully has become a big part of her retirement.
“Don’t let others define who you are and what you can do,” Weiler told readers.
“The results have been very positive,” Climans told CTVNews.ca after the event.
MacDonald said the experience helped seniors feel a sense of empowerment.
“Someone really listened to them for a change and appreciated what they had to say,” she said.