Introducing our new co-investigators

August 23, 2023

By Dr. Alison Grittner, Dr. Rachel Weldrick, and Margaret Ovenell

Core to the AIRP-VABE Partnership’s work is its commitment to training the next generation of housing researchers. Among the Partnership’s 22 former trainees are Drs. Alison Grittner and Rachel Weldrick, AIRP-VABE’s two newest co-investigators. Dr. Grittner and Dr. Weldrick tell us about their journeys from trainees to co-investigators, and their hopes for their new roles.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and the journey that originally brought you to the AIRP-VABE Partnership.

Dr. Grittner: I joined the project in the third year of my PhD studies in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. The Calgary city lead, Dr. Christine Walsh,was also my PhD supervisor. Data collection was starting at the first site and my skill set in both architecture and social work reflected the socio-spatial perspective required for the research. My first day in the field was conducting the built environment audit for the first supportive housing site, tape measure in hand.

Dr. Weldrick: I first joined the project three days after defending my doctoral dissertation. Yep – three days. At the time, I was a freshly minted Social Gerontology PhD with expertise mostly in the realms of aging and health studies. But having done a little bit of work in areas of homelessness, social inclusion, and community-based research I was immediately drawn to the Aging in the Right Place Partnership project and its aims. 

I had spent about five years (some of which were during the pandemic) researching social isolation among older people who live alone. I met with folks to talk about aging, social connection, and the places that have shaped their social worlds. This journey took me to every corner of my city and into apartments, cafes, corners of libraries, and community resource centres. Throughout this process I learned a lot about housing and its complex relationship with aging and wellbeing. I gained a lot from my doctoral committee members – Drs. Jim Dunn, Gavin Andrews, and Jenny Ploeg – all of whom have long track records of housing, geography, and nursing scholarship.  

What did your research focus on during your time as a doctoral research assistant with the AIRP-VABE Partnership?

Dr. Grittner: As a doctoral research assistant much of my time was spent leading data collection across the Calgary sites. The data collection involved working with great teams of social work practicum students. 

I most enjoyed incorporating the project into the classes I was teaching in both social work and architecture. I integrated the research activities into Master of Architecture classes for experiential learning of supportive housing design. My social work community practice classes organized photovoice art shows that shared the research participants’ stories and photographs with their communities: facilitating social justice through art.  

Dr. Weldrick: I worked closely under the leadership of our project director, Dr. Sarah Canham, to investigate the ways in which service providers can effectively support older people experiencing homelessness, as well the challenges they face in their service delivery. I was also able to co-develop a conceptual framework on aging in the right place which is being used to guide our work.

Importantly, I co-developed a sub-project with the AIRP-VABE Lived Expertise Advisors. As a group, we were able to secure funds from Simon Fraser University’s Community Engagement Initiative to host a community-engaged project called Community Conversations. Over the course of a year, I worked with the Lived Expertise Advisors and AIRP academic team members to co-host a number of public events aimed at re-framing and dismantling discrimination towards older adults experiencing homelessness. We also co-developed a number of ‘stereotype cards’ featuring myth-busting information regarding homelessness. Our intention is to continue growing the collection of cards over time in the hopes that they will be used as engaging and educational tools.

As the project evolved, I have developed scholarship on ageism and discrimination enacted towards older people experiencing homelessness, as well as social integration in supportive housing environments. This work is ongoing.

What was the most valuable thing you learned from your time as a doctoral research assistant on the  AIRP-VABE Partnership?

Dr. Grittner: The most valuable thing I learned was developing my understanding of the project management and collaboration required for a multi-year, multi-site, national research project. There are so many activities happening in different geographic regions, which ultimately need to come together for analysis and knowledge creation. Working on such an interdisciplinary team (gerontology, architecture, social work, health) also solidified the importance of shaking-up disciplinary silos.

Dr. Weldrick: It’s difficult to answer this question by picking a single thing– the AIRP-VABE Partnership has contributed to my development as an academic in countless ways. Through this project I have learned from lived experts, service providers, and academics in many fields. I’ve learned how to work with diverse teams across cities, time zones, and experience levels. I’ve learned the power of community-based participatory research where lived experts are valued members of the team. I’ve learned how to integrate advocacy and activism into research. These are learnings that will inform every bit of academic work I do from here on out. It has been transformative.  

What will your research within the AIRP-VABE Partnership focus on going forward? 

Dr. Grittner: My new faculty position is at Cape Breton University, so I’m excited to bring the AIRP project here! My first focus will be in supporting knowledge-sharing. Supportive housing for older adults with experiences of homelessness are critical social issues in this region. Looking further forward, I hope to bring on Cape Breton as a site in the AIRP Partnership to broaden its understanding of Aging in the Right Place in rural and post-industrial communities.

Dr. Weldrick: I’m excited to continue working alongside the Lived Expertise Advisors to further develop the Community Conversations project and build out pieces that tackle discrimination through creative and engaging knowledge mobilization.

I will also be developing my program of research into social in/exclusion, integration, and isolation for older people experiencing housing insecurity across the housing spectrum.

If and where possible, I’d like to bring a new community partner onto the AIRP-VABE Partnership here in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. It would be wonderful to extend the Partnership into new communities.   

How has your experience of transitioning to a new role within the Partnership been so far? 

Dr. Grittner: It’s been wonderful as I’ve been able to nerd-out and focus on analyzing the Calgary data that we spent the last couple of years collecting and writing journal articles for publication. It’s been an opportunity to see all the research we’ve conducted transformed into shareable knowledge at a critical time: homelessness across the life course is increasing in Canada. The AIRP project highlights why as a society we need to take action, through the voices and eyes of older adults who have experienced homelessness themselves.

Dr. Weldrick: I have now been a co-investigator for three months and am happy to report that it’s been a wonderful transition. I was very fortunate to receive a postdoctoral fellowship co-funded by CMHC and SSHRC – the very same institutions that co-fund the AIRP-VABE Partnership. In my new capacity as a CMHC-SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, I have the space and freedom to work independently on a project in Toronto and Hamilton with housing insecure older people who live alone, while also contributing to the AIRP-VABE Partnership. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do both. 

What are you looking forward to as you take on your new role as a co-investigator?  

Dr. Grittner: To create needed change in our housing and shelter system, grounded in the express needs of older adults with experiences of homelessness. Prior to beginning my PhD I worked for a decade in the supportive housing design and policy realm and the lived experience of residents was so often dismissed or excluded by those with power in the housing system. I returned to academia to challenge and change this exclusion. I’m so grateful to be involved on the AIRP project with its emphasis on lived experience advisors and understanding residents needs and experiences.

Plus, I get to keep working and learning with such a great cross-Canada team!

Dr. Weldrick: I am very much looking forward to continuing working with the Partnership to conduct much-needed research on homelessness, housing, and aging. I want to continue pushing this work forward and infusing critical advocacy, activism, and public engagement along the way.

We need research that is community-engaged, and we need community work that is research-informed. I look forward to contributing where I can.