Worth more than a thousand words

Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 17, 2021

How capturing older adults’ experience of their environments is helping to make spaces more accessible

Katie Vaughan has a passion for enabling accessible communities through built environments (buildings, streets and outdoor spaces), an interest that developed during her undergraduate study at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

“Working with community groups, I saw how inaccessible built environments are for many people, especially older adults,” said Vaughan. “Aging is not the only culprit. Often when someone feels that they’ve lost their independence, it’s because of something being inaccessible.”

This realization led to her Master’s research at the intersection of community planning and health. Under the supervision of Dr. Mikiko Terashima, Lead Researcher at the PEACH Research Unit and MSSU Scientist, Vaughan led Spaces that Work for Me—a project that earned her a 2020-21 MSSU Student Award.

The project engaged older adults using photovoice, a visual research method that puts cameras into participants’ hands. Twelve older adults from across Nova Scotia participated in the study, contributing more than 120 photos that document, reflect on, and communicate their perspectives on the built environments in their neighbourhoods—what was accessible or not?

Having worked with photovoice on a prior project and being a visual person herself, Vaughan knew that this approach would help reveal first-person experiences navigating spaces.

“Photographs really are worth more than a thousand words. It can be challenging for someone to pinpoint exactly why a place looks inaccessible to them, and photos help to shed light on topics that are otherwise difficult to put into words,” said Vaughan.

Vaughan’s analysis of the photos identified three broad themes—streets, destinations, and parks and recreation—and a number of recurring issues within each theme. From this work, she is also able to assess whether current identified accessibility standards and design guidelines reflect these perspectives, and identified 14 priorities to better enable older adults to conduct safe, independent, and healthy lives.

True to her roots working with local communities, Vaughan teamed up with Community Links, a province-wide organization that supports the establishment of age-friendly, inclusive communities—a partnership she credits with much of her success recruiting participants. Community Links helped overcome the challenges of recruiting during the pandemic, and to develop materials and consent forms in simple language.

“Conducting this study during the pandemic not only allowed us to better understand the accessible design needs of older adults, but also allowed us to identify modifications that help engage older adults in remote participatory action research,” says Vaughan, reflecting on the unexpectedly large impact that COVID-19 had on her research.

“When we reached the end of our research, we felt like we just dipped our toes into this work. There is so much more we can do. Our province has the highest rate of older populations in Canada, so this work is necessary in Nova Scotia.”

Following her graduation with a Masters of Planning from Dalhousie University, Katie received an Age-Friendly Communities Grant from the Department of Seniors to continue her work with Spaces that Work for Me—bringing photovoice activities to more older adults in rural communities.

"Katie brings the world of research to the public in a very approachable and accessible way. At Community Links, we’re so happy to be working with Katie again this year through the Age-Friendly Communities Grant. This expanded photovoice project will continue to amplify the voices of older adults and bring their experiences to the table, as we explore the communities we want to live in as we age in Nova Scotia," says Meagan MacDonald, Regional Coordinator - HRM/East Hants/Colchester, Community Links.

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Meet MSSU Student Award winners

Since 2014, the MSSU has provided $2.8 million in funding to support more than 75 trainees pursuing patient-oriented research. This story is the first in a series introducing MSSU Student Award winners and the impact that their research is having across the Maritimes.

Learn more about the MSSU Student Awards program