Hamilton's McMaster receives $10-million for research on aging

McMaster alumna and fomer businesswoman Suzanne Labarge makes a sizable donation to research on aging.
An avid yoga practitioner, Suzanne Labarge received a thank-you mat as her gift from McMaster. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

When McMaster professor Brenda Vrkljan was looking for seniors to participate in a focus group for research on how seniors drive and use their cars, she placed an ad in the local newspaper.

"We were overwhelmed by the response," said Vrkljan, who works in the occupational therapy department. "We had over 250 to 300 people call to say they were interested in participating. I've never seen that kind of response in a community before."

Vrkljan has since expanded her focus and partnered with engineering professor Robert Fleisig to research and develop a better car design for the aging population.

Now, with a sizable gift from an outside donor for research on aging Friday, Vrkljan and Fleisig can easily move on to the next phase of project.

McMaster president Patrick Deane and donor Suzanne Labarge were joined with the many researchers who will benefit from the donation. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

A donation of $10-million from McMaster alumna and Toronto-based businesswoman Suzanne Labarge will fund research into the interdisciplinary field of "optimal aging."

The $10-million will establish the Labarge Optimal Aging Opportunities Fund. The money will be put towards research aimed at mobility, chronic illness and infections.

"It isn't a family problem, it's a national priority," Labarge said of Canada's aging population. "I hope [the donation] will help us ask the right questions."

McMaster president Patrick Deane agrees.

"How we help our aging population is one of the ways we measure success as a nation," he said, "and measure success as a collective humanity."

Labarge earned her bachelor's degree in economics in 1967 and received an honorary degree from McMaster's DeGroote School of Business in June 2011.

She is now retired from senior executive positions at the Royal Bank of Canada. 

Keeping with Labarge's wish for research to be cross-platform, the first batch of funding will go to seven projects that include researchers in engineering, medicine and occupational therapy.

"We are now more confident because of your confidence in us," dean of health sciences John Kelton told Labarge.

It is fitting that optimal aging research can happen in Hamilton. Census data from Statistics Canada released in May showed Hamilton's population 65 and older is 15.6 per cent. That compares to 14.8 per cent nationally.

As for Vrkljan and Fleisig's research, they are ready to move forward.

"We've done focus groups and now we need to go to the next step and actually watch [seniors] do some of these things," Vrkljan said. "That's where the Labarge funding comes in."