SFU gerontology/sociology professor engages in innovative and timely family genealogy and DNA testing research

September 06, 2023

Barbara Mitchell, professor of gerontology & sociology at Simon Fraser University (SFU) has been awarded a 4-year Insight Grant, funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

As solo principal investigator (PI) and applicant, this major funding will facilitate research in Canadian family genealogy through a gerontological lens to cultivate a better understanding of generational connections and shifting meanings of family life in contemporary society. The idea for this nationally-based project was spurred by a lifelong fascination with Mitchell’s own family history and a strong personal motivation. In particular, she always wanted to learn who her maternal grandfather was, and especially prior to the recent passing of her biological mother. Fortunately, she was able to solve this family mystery through extensive research and DNA testing and reunite her mother with some of her own long-lost relatives. Also, in this case, it was a happy ending that resulted in many unexpected surprises and new supportive family bonds. 

Mitchell’s project, “Aging Amateur Family Genealogists: Linking Lives and Long-Lost Relatives” will specifically examine the psycho-social impacts of older-aged Canadian ‘amateur’ family genealogists, studying their family history/lineage using DNA testing and databases, family stories, and public/private historical records. It will focus on the experiences of 500 older adults who have searched for, identified, and located, a previously unknown immediate genetic relative (i.e., parent, sibling, child). Using mixed methods and a longitudinal research design, three specific objectives are to: 

  1. Examine the motivations and pathways by which older adults from diverse backgrounds pursue and experience DNA testing and their family history data;
  2. Analyze how genealogical discoveries affect social/cultural and racialized identities and aging family relationships; and; 
  3. Assess the impact of the wider social context, including public settings such as societal/media discourses, on genealogical searches and discoveries.

As a result of rapid population aging and recent technological advancements in DNA testing, Mitchell’s research will contribute to scholarly research by filling a pressing knowledge gap of Canadian aging families and their engagement with family history. Scholarly audiences (academics, researchers, instructors, students) will directly benefit from the project findings by learning more about a timely and under-researched socially relevant topic area in addition to their theoretical/applied implications.

Through this project, one of Mitchell’s goals is to build public and personal awareness of an increasingly popular leisure activity practiced by many Canadians by providing information, resources, and tools to those wanting to learn more about the topic. Non-academic audiences (e.g., the general public, older adults, community groups and organizations, and those working directly with families) will benefit by learning about an area that can have high personal interest and relevancy. For instance, the knowledge gained will help community groups improve their service delivery and programs (e.g., leisure/hobby, recreational, intergenerational) aimed at promoting family well-being, resilience, and healthy aging through shared interests, activities, and social connections.

Individuals will also benefit by receiving timely information and valuable resources. For example, they can learn more about the personal challenges, joys, and potential risks/pitfalls associated with this activity through enhanced public dialogue, participation in community-based workshops and attendance at public talks.

The impact of Mitchell’s project will be felt across all ages and generations and contribute to a deeper understanding of the ways in which family genealogical research is applied in a gerontological context. Indeed, as family history research proliferates and DNA testing becomes easier and more commonplace, finding positive ways to bring lost relatives together can provide a greater sense of self, identity, meaning, and community engagement.


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