One day, about 10 years ago, Margaret Denton and Anju Joshi, my colleagues in Gerontological Studies at McMaster University, suggested we have lunch. They knew about the highly successful Council on Aging in Ottawa and thought Hamilton would benefit from one. Since I was newly retired, they thought I might be interested in heading up an initiative to pursue this idea. I agreed and HCOA began to dominate my life for the next 8 years!
Why did we think Hamilton needed a Council on Aging? Although there were other organizations in the city that served older adults as part of their mandate, no organization focused solely on older adults or had a mandate to advocate and educate on their behalf. As teachers and researchers in the field of aging, we knew that the aging of the population, coupled with the aging of the postwar baby boom, meant there were significant age-related issues that were growing in urgency and that needed to be addressed at both the individual level and at the level of social policy. We thought that having an organization dedicated to advocating for older adults would help ensure that when broader issues – such as health, transportation, social participation, housing, or income security/poverty – were being discussed and addressed, the particular needs and interests of older adults would always be raised for consideration.
Our first step was forming a working group. We brought together individuals from different areas of activity who had some involvement with aging issues and older adults. Although people sat at the table as individuals rather than as representatives of organizations, we had people from the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, Catholic Family Services, McMaster University, the YWCA, St. Peter’s Hospital and others.
We met over a number of months to discuss why we thought establishing a Council of Aging in Hamilton would be a good idea, how we thought it should function, who should be included in our ongoing discussions. There were times we felt we were talking a lot but not getting very far, but then members of our group who had more experience in forming new organizations reassured us that taking time at the beginning to build strong foundations would pay off in the long run. We grappled with the question of whether board members should represent organizations or simply serve as individuals; ultimately, we decided the latter would best serve the organization. However, we knew from the start that forming partnerships with other organizations in the community would be vital and a key to future success.
Over these months, we had some special sessions led by a skilled facilitator. This process was very helpful in focusing our thoughts, establishing a mission and vision statement, and principles by which we felt we should operate. Our mission statement has guided us over the ensuing years: “The Hamilton Council on Aging exists to educate, advocate and improve life for older adults through a collaborative network of individuals and organizations.”
A key principle of HCOA is that it is senior-driven. HCOA seeks to enhance the quality of life of older adults. The Council was very fortunate in getting support early on from the Hamilton Community Foundation. A small but crucial grant enabled us to hire someone to conduct focus groups with older adults in Hamilton to see what their key priorities were.
One of our members was instrumental in setting up a relationship between HCOA and St. Peter’s Hospital. St. Peter’s gave us space for a real office, a luxury we hadn’t had to this point, and provided other technical and administrative support.
With help donated by Winchie Law, we incorporated and successfully obtained charitable status.
And a key step in our early years was obtaining funding from the United Way of Burlington and Greater Hamilton. We have been receiving funding every year since and are very proud to be a United Way agency.
About a year or two after HCOA began, we became aware of the world-wide Age Friendly Cities movement that emerged from the World Health Organization. We became very excited by the prospect of working to make Hamilton an age friendly city. We were successful in obtaining a grant from the Trillium Foundation that enabled us to hire an executive director and begin to tackle the long-term project to create an age-friendly Hamilton. We are, of course, still very much engaged in this activity. We are now at a very exciting point where we are working with the City of Hamilton and other partners to formulate a Seniors’ Strategy for the City of Hamilton.
HCOA continues to evolve in response to community needs. For example, the Council was fortunate in establishing a close relationship with the former Council on Elder Abuse. The Council joined HCOA and was renamed the Committee on Elder Abuse. This has allowed HCOA to make the issue of elder abuse a central part of its strategic plan. This committee of HCOA is very active and keeps public and government attention focused not only on the problems that exist but also on the avenues address them.
While I finished my second and last term as a member of the HCOA Board in 2013, I continue to follow its activities with interest and pride. I can’t think of a more satisfying way to have spent the past 10 years than to have helped build the Hamilton Council on Aging.
Carolyn J. Rosenthal
Carolyn Rosenthal was a founding member of the Hamilton Council on Aging and currently sits on the Council’s age-friendly committee. She served on its Board of Directors for 6 years, including 3 years as Board Chair. She is Professor Emeritus, Sociology and Gerontology, McMaster University. She was a founding member of Hamilton Third Age Learning and currently serves as that organization’s Vice-President.