Ryerson rethinks the think tank—with an Indigenous focus

The Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson applies an Indigenous perspective to public policy

The original article by Emily Baron-Cadloff on Maclean’s can be found here

Hayden King with the members of the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson (Alia Youssef)

It’s been a busy few months for the Yellowhead Institute. Ryerson University’s new think tank is doing what a think tank does: analyzing government policies, recruiting academics and conducting research on community projects. But Yellowhead is doing something that’s never been done before at this level. The institution focuses on Indigenous people and filters all that work through an Indigenous perspective.

The centre was formally opened in June, but it has been suggested by Indigenous leaders and thinkers for years. The name comes from William Yellowhead, the first chief of the Rama First Nation in Ontario. “We were sort of modelling it on the think tanks that currently exist in Canada and North America, and we saw the organizations like the Laurier Institute,” says Hayden King, the director of the institute. “What would it look like to have an Indigenous institute named after someone we could aspire to?”

READ MORE: A new network aims to connect and support Indigenous scholars

King has taught Indigenous politics and policy for more than a decade at multiple universities and is an adviser to the dean of arts on Indigenous education at Ryerson. He is also Indigenous, as are all the research fellows and the majority of the board members. Together, they crafted five key objectives: support First Nations in their self-determination, hold all levels of government accountable, invest in public education, support Indigenous students, and build solidarity with non-Indigenous students and researchers. “We want to try to change the way research is done in communities, and provide a model for how to do that for other individuals and other organizations,” King says.

For King, looking at public policy from an Indigenous perspective is novel, because not many organizations or First Nations have the resources to do a deep dive into those issues. “For many generations, First Nations have dealt with this chronic underfunding at the community level,” King says. “Leadership have often been forced to make difficult decisions about where they allocate funding. Is it to clean water, or is it to transportation or infrastructure?”

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One of the first issues King and his staff are looking at is the Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework, an effort by the federal government to take a sweeping look at changing the relationship between Indigenous people and government systems; it could encompass any number of policies before its implementation in October 2019. But it’s complicated and removed from the daily life of many people. That’s where Yellowhead comes in. “There is a really glaring gap in the landscape for any organization like this to offer critical perspectives to those communities on government policy and legislation, and then support for cultivating and building their own,” King says.

While there are First Nation research chairs and university departments around the country, Yellowhead is the first institute of its scope and size in Canada. Fifteen research fellows from across Canada have signed on to work with the group, publishing near-weekly briefs dissecting various subjects.

It’s been an ambitious first year, but one that has been a long time in the making. King and his staff have spent years working out how to launch Yellowhead, and how they want to support First Nation communities. For them, it’s about supporting students and building those relationships, but also “changing the discourse in the country, which ultimately supports communities, and making the research relationship more just. It is ambitious, but we’re committed.”

Study hard and you might lower your chances of dementia

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A new study funded by the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation will investigate the use of learning technologies such as streaming media for people with dementia and those at risk.

David Chandross, Ryerson University

Every year hundreds of elderly students gather in Toronto for convocation, in-person and online, anxiously awaiting their diplomas. Some are in their nineties; some have dementia.

One graduate, who completed 15 courses taught by Ryerson University faculty, was a former entertainment manager for Madonna. She argued in class that Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant’s view of art was better than that of David Hume, the Scottish philosopher. Kant said art was based on intention, Hume said it was skill.

During the class, this student could well maintain her rational argument. What she remembered the next week was little. But in the moment, which is where dementia patients find themselves, as we all do, existentially, she was present.

And the benefits go beyond presence. Participation in higher learning can also temper the loss of cognitive function associated with aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

Gill Livingston and his team who lead the Lancet Commission on Dementia have shown that resilience can help slow the progression of dementia or delay its onset. The idea underlying resilience is a concept called cognitive reserve. Lifestyle factors such as diet and fitness — and also learning — increase cognitive reserve. Higher cognitive reserve means fighting against loss of memory.

From philosophy to neuropsychology

Over the past four years, Ryerson University, in partnership with Baycrest Health Sciences, has been offering up to 20 courses a year to seniors. Some have dementia, some don’t — they sit side by side in the classroom.

The courses are thick, eight-week intensive, two-hour sessions. Titles include: The Philosophy of Socrates, Astronomy, Neuropsychology, Romanticism and the Great Artists, Classical Music, The Great Directors, French Literature and Archeology.

Harvard-trained archeologist, David Lipovitch, conducts courses on Middle Eastern dig sites he is working on. Top writers for the Globe and Mail and experts in Broadway history present to classes of up to 30 students.

Research shows that education improves seniors’ well-being.

The key is engagement — optimizing learning to reduce social isolation and increase self-esteem. These offerings are not “edutainment,” but rival the content of real university undergraduate offerings.

What is different is that the students do not complete assignments. They are recognized for making the effort to attend. One student with advanced dementia, but still coherent, said “I have trouble remembering things and this is the highlight of my week, so don’t YOU forget to bring me here next week!”

This kind of comment is frequent. And the very idea that organized learning led this patient to perform a “metacognitive act” — knowing she had dementia and needing to compensate — is impressive in itself.

Social connectedness and mental stimulation

The Lancet Commission report also explored the role of early childhood education in the development of dementia. The data suggests that lack of education leads to higher incidence of dementia due to decreased cognitive reserve.

This points to the value of educating seniors over long periods of time — not only for those with dementia, but for those who are healthy and at risk for dementia.

George Rebok’s 2014 landmark study on the effect of education for seniors tracked participants for a 10-year period, exploring many aspects of cognitive function. Small effects were seen in increased ability to think and more impressive effects with respect to personal hygiene, self-efficacy and other measures of well-being.

Learning seems to provide both social connectedness and mental stimulation, possibly leading to resilience through increasing cognitive reserve. Reasoning and speed of thinking improved in Rebok’s outcomes, but not memory.

It is projected that at least half of the human population will be over the age of 50 by 2050.
(Baycrest Health Sciences), Author provided

We still do not understand whether focused mental rehearsal through learning can prevent or improve dementia. Studies by Julia Spaniol at Ryerson University show that increasing engagement and motivation in seniors helps unlock memory. But until recently there had been no focused research on the role of deeper learning, such as these intensive university-led courses, in dementia outcomes or quality of life.

‘Eudamonia’ for an aging society

However, this is about to change. This summer, the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation (CABHI) awarded a grant to our team — to investigate the use of learning technologies such as streaming media compared to face-to-face sessions in people with dementia and those at risk of developing it.

The goal of the program is to create greater access to lifelong learning opportunities for older adults irrespective of their place of residence — be it long-term care or in the community. The clinical studies begin in September 2018 and we will report on our data in the late spring of 2019.

Life expectancy is increasing and it is projected that at least half of the human population will be over the age of 50 by the year 2050. We will need to keep our minds alive and our senses keen to really enjoy those treasured elder years.

Socrates spoke of an idea called “eudaimonia,” which means “flourishing in life.” Too much pleasure and we wilt. Too much purpose and we stress out. But when pleasure and purpose are both high, we achieve this “eudaimonia” state, according to Deborah Fels, one of Canada’s leading experts in aging and accessibility.

Learning is clearly what humans do best. We lack the agility of tigers or the longevity of sequoia trees, but we learn unceasingly and that makes us distinct. Learning about ourselves and the world might be the key to happiness and health into our golden years.

David Chandross, Program coordinator; researcher, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.