Words of wisdom from older persons with experiences of homelessness

June 01, 2022

By Emily Lam, Diana Juanita Mora, Claire Wang, Rachelle Patille and Atiya Mahmood      

Featured in the Simon Fraser University Gerontology Research Centre June 2022 Newsletter.

Read the full issue here

The Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) Partnership aims to understand how older persons experiencing homelessness (OPEH) can age optimally in environments that support their needs and identities. The AIRP Project seeks to gain a holistic perspective on how to best support OPEH by examining the built environment and neighbourhoods that surround promising practices (i.e., housing structures targeted towards older adults), as well as gaining the perspective of service providers and clients at promising practice locations. An integral aspect of our research is working with our OPEH advisors. Their lived expertise and guidance play a critical role in all aspects of the AIRP Project. Recently, our undergraduate research assistants had an opportunity to converse with three OPEH advisors to learn from their rich and diverse lived experiences.

Dorothy Kestle has always been an advocate for the health and social support of older adults and the community around her. Years ago, Dorothy and her son were evicted from their home after they were abandoned by someone she trusted, leaving her to depend on shelters and supportive housing. Her advocacy for older adults is fueled by her personal struggles with homelessness, however, throughout her life, she has always been involved in helping older adults. Dorothy’s advocacy for the health and well-being of older adults is deeply influenced by her loving relationship with her grandparents and the values they taught her growing up. Dorothy volunteered with the Women’s Institute Group in London, Ontario for many years, aiming to reduce social isolation among older adults, and has experience working in a palliative home in her younger years. Recently, Dorothy was involved in running the food program at the supportive housing she lives in and has built a sense of community for the older adults living there. She strongly believes that it is critical to be compassionate, and have empathy for others, as every person has their own story. Dorothy carries this with her each day and lives by the saying her grandmother would always say, “If we don’t help each other in life, then who will?”.

Chris Danielson’s passion for challenging the stigma of homelessness in older adults and women, shines bright in the advocacy work she does in the community. Having experienced housing instability challenges in her life after suddenly being faced with blocked finances from her ex-husband and custody battles of her children, she speaks of the lack of support she felt during those times. Chris also recalls the discomfort and lack of dignity of being in spaces that were not her own, as well as the stigma she faced as she sought support for stability. She also shares how she is not the face of what society normally thinks homelessness looks like. Today, she works to change the narrative by educating others, and empowering people who are facing similar challenges as the ones she faced. Chris is currently an outreach housing worker and helps people who are facing homelessness to access housing and support. She has also created the PNK files, a filing system to ensure people have the necessary paperwork available before a crisis occurs. Through her powerful advocacy work, Chris keeps empathy and compassion at the core. She explains how even seemingly simple tasks may be challenging for people experiencing barriers that may not be perceivable by all, and her lived expertise has shown her that.

Nick Wennington is a powerful force in the community, spearheading initiatives to support people experiencing homelessness, substance use, and mental health challenges. Nick previously experienced those very challenges for a period of 10 years after facing several traumatic events, and now, his lived expertise shapes how he advocates for others in the community. Currently, he is involved with various research projects that focus on homelessness as a lived experience advisor and is part of the Community Advisory Board of Metro Vancouver. His innovation and passion are clear through the many projects he is working on to help those who are experiencing homelessness. He hopes to create peer support networks and add to research efforts using the rich community connections he has built from his lived experiences. Nick strongly believes in the power of lived experience in making impactful change, as the knowledge of older adults that accumulate from an invaluable wealth of life experiences, are key in helping younger generations as they move along on their own journeys. Recognizing the value of this type of expertise can help contribute to improving the well-being of communities overall. Most importantly, besides the change it can bring, lived expertise is about connection and making space for forgotten voices to be heard.

These powerful conversations with our lived experience advisors helped shed light on important words of wisdom as we explore AIRP for OPEH. Dorothy speaks to how everyone has their own story, and highlights that showing kindness to those in our community is up to all of us. Chris highlights the importance of empathy and compassion in engaging with others, especially for those facing barriers or stigma. Nick advocates for lived expertise to be seen as a valuable agent of change and for knowledge to be shared to collectively support the vulnerable communities. As we continue to explore AIRP and practices that support OPEH, these are invaluable lessons that must be kept at the forefront of the work we do.