Samantha Teichman on ageing in place and finding community in the big city

Chatting with one of HNC’s newest Research Assistants about her work in the Collective and what keeps her grounded in challenging times.

When did you join the Collective?

I joined in the middle of March! I’m working on investigating the links between social connectedness and healthy ageing in multi-unit housing contexts. Or put another way, can intentional programs that seek to strengthen social connections between neighbours help older adults to live independently for longer, and more healthily and happily?

I just finished up my first year of my Ph.D. in gerontology at SFU and I am studying for my comprehensive exams this summer. I think I’ll have to take my books to the beach! 

What’s it been like moving from the east coast gradually west?

I hadn’t spent much time in Vancouver, but I thought, “What’s the best excuse to go out west and see the mountains?” So I moved last August. Originally though, I’m from New Brunswick. Then I did my undergrad, at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. I did my master’s in Toronto and realized I loved the city but missed the ocean. Making the move to Vancouver was the best of both worlds! In one direction is the city and in the other, the mountains and the ocean.

But I do miss the community of the east coast. When you go back it seems like nothing’s changed. It’s so small town, I really love that feeling. Growing up, everybody knew everybody which was incredible in terms of support. You could lean on family and peers. There was a special thing about knowing everybody.

How did you get into gerontology?

I did my undergrad and Master’s in sociology but I’ve always been researching families. I was introduced to gerontology through my master’s degree. Families, ageing, and community are all passions of mine. Plus, my experience in a small town has really shaped my idea of family and community. Most of my focus has been on bereavement and grief work: how we navigate and support it. Lately, I’ve been studying older adult populations and observing how little support there is for them.

I volunteer quite a bit for the department at SFU but also with the Alzheimers Society. My nanny has Alzheimer’s, so it hits close to home. It’s something that she experiences, but also our family and it’s been a process for 10-15 years, changing and negotiating care and relationships and making sure everybody in the family feels safe and cared for. 

Everything in my life seems to come back to support and care. That’s really at the forefront of what I do, so I was really excited to join Hey Neighbour for that reason! I know for myself that through volunteering I get to develop relationships that are really special.

What do you think it means to age in place?

I think it means looking at so many things: what care and support do we need to stay in our homes as we get older? How do we construct the built environment, or how do our homes have to change to support evolving needs? What daily activities and programs do we want to keep in our lives and how might we need to adjust them?

One thing I’m interested in is intergenerational programs in housing contexts that promote social connection: it can be as simple as a young person teaching someone who is older how to use an iPad.

I think we’ve learned the value of technology, especially these last two years during COVID. All the older adults in my family are Zooming me! I think they really value in-person connection, but I could not imagine them going through COVID without technology. It’s so important for social connection.

But intergenerational programming can also involve retired couples spending time with their younger neighbour’s children, or even older folks offering food-growing tips to first-time gardeners. It’s not necessarily about the specific activity, it’s just that act of connection.

Also supporting activities like knitting clubs. Some people have already built a community in their building and they don’t want to move, and they should have the supports they need to live there as long as they can.

What’s something interesting you’ve learned about ageing in place in multi-unit buildings?

One thing I recently learned about at the Living Together symposium was an Indigenous-led and built high-rise building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside by Luma, where units have bigger, flexible spaces for families. 

These “lock-off units” allow for sub-units where grandparents, older adults, and extended family can easily share space. It’s blended, but also private. This is a model that would be great to emulate more broadly so that more of us could live intergenerationally.

How do you find community in big cities?

When I went to Toronto, I didn’t know many people and it took work to build a community there.  There is community in a big city, but you have to do some self-inventory to figure out your own hobbies and interests, and then connect with people through those interests. 

In Vancouver it was a little easier, I had a lot of connections through my time at Acadia University (for my undergrad). So that’s been really cool. I think because I’m so used to living in a small town and I have an outgoing personality, I was comfortable with reaching out to friends of friends and finding connection that way.

Now, I have quite a great community around here and one of my best friends lives just across the street! And I’m one day away from getting a dog, I think. I’m very thankful for my community. It’s what has made this transition moving here so easy. Vancouver feels like home.

How did you come to value nature in your life?

I think I always valued nature and being near water, but I took it for granted a bit when I moved to Toronto where it’s an adventure to get to the water. But I know that when things are stressful I can just go outside and that helps. In my Ph.D., if I hit writer’s block, I go for a walk and go outside. 

It’s cool to be in a city (like Vancouver) and see all the planning that goes on for older adults to have access to nature, like in the west end of Vancouver. I conduct interviews with older adults there, and they tell me how grateful they are to be so close to the water and environment. 

A view of Rainbow Haven Beach n Nova Scotia, from a boardwalk overlooking dunes and the ocean.
Rainbow Haven Beach, Nova Scotia. Photo by Samantha Teichman.

How is climate change affecting your outlook?

This was the first time in all my years to experience climate grief. The floods, fires, storms, the barge is still there! It’s a very real reminder that we have to take care of our earth too. I’ve been very awakened to the realities of climate change. I’ve always noticed but it’s really happening.

I felt the sense of, “oh my gosh, how do we fix this??” One thing that came to my mind is, what happens if we have a heat dome again? How do we plan for this? How do we plan for our most vulnerable, like having cooling rooms in multi-unit housing since many people in Vancouver don’t even have AC?

To keep from being in despair, I’m always asking myself how I can do my part and if my part is to help plan and prepare, then that’s what I want to help with. 

What keeps you happy outside of work?

I love food so much and am always looking at new restaurants.  I could eat sushi for the rest of my life! When I go home it’s lobster, lobster rolls, and seafood chowder. Here in BC, it’s sushi.

I also love music and concerts and will listen to almost anything, though country music is big for me and I’m Dolly Parton’s biggest fan! My alarm clock for many years was “9 to 5!” My uncle and I are really close and we both love country music, so much so that for my 21st birthday we booked a trip and went to Nashville. We saw a few shows and went to the Grand Ole Opry.