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Growing the study of growing old: Dr. Neena Chappell

June 4, 2018
Neena Chappell

Dr. Neena Chappell was always fascinated by elderly people and the process of growing old.

“When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, my professors would say, ‘Why is a young thing like you interested in old age?’” Chappell says. “Later, they would ask me why I had such insight into the future. But it was just personal interest.”

That personal interest in the lives and experiences of older adults helped Chappell build the foundation for the study of aging in Canada. During her career of more than 30 years, she has shaped the discipline of gerontology and is widely recognized as an international leader to those studying the sociology of aging. Her research focuses on issues such as caregiving, healthy aging and dementia care, as well as health and social policy.

She says her career was sparked by childhood admiration of her paternal grandfather, whom she calls “a man of incredible integrity.” He stood up against racism in both the Canadian government and his own family when his daughter-in-law, Dr. Chappell’s mother, came to Canada from China as a bride during the Second World War.

“Canada would not give my mother citizenship,” Chappell says. “My grandfather, who was a personal friend of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, believed this was wrong. So he called the prime minister, who personally signed my mother’s Canadian citizenship papers.”

The rest of the extended family disowned her family because her father married interracially, but her grandfather visited once a month for Sunday dinner.

“He was a very principled man, and because of that, I believed older adults had a lot of wisdom and humanity in them, so I was very attracted to studying them.”

When she was a student, gerontology did not exist as a discipline and she could not find a supervisor for a PhD thesis on aging. She changed her focus long enough to earn her doctorate in sociology from McMaster University in 1978 and joined the small group of academics worldwide who studied older people and aging.

High on the researchers’ list was convincing governments and universities to recognize aging as an issue. They met with cabinet ministers and academic funding bodies to lobby for money to study how an older population would affect Canadian society and health services.

“You could see this crest of the wave as the field began to be recognized,” she says. “In Canada, governments didn’t really start paying attention to aging until the first baby boomers started hitting age 65, and that was a bit late.”

Chappell established the research Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba in 1982, and then a second at the University of Victoria in 1992. She researched and lectured as a sociology professor at UVic for more than 25 years until her retirement in 2018. She is now professor emeritus.

Her research has looked at everything from the cultural norm of “filial responsibility” in Chinese and Chinese-Canadian society and its effect on seniors and their caregivers; to the importance of resilience in the well-being of people who care for relatives with dementia; to changes that could be made in hospitals to improve the wellbeing of older patients.

She says she feels her greatest impact may not be her body of work, which includes more than 300 academic articles and 11 books, but mentoring many contemporary experts in gerontology.

“I hope I have conveyed the value in having integrity in your work and caring for the people who we study, who really are our partners and who contribute so much to what we do,” she says.  “I’ve always said the older adults are the heroes here, not the researchers.”

As she officially joins the ranks of older adults upon her retirement, Chappell hasn’t slowed down. She says keeping busy is a lesson she learned from her elders.

“I’ve clearly taken on too many new assignments, so I’m struggling to get back to some retirement time,” she says. “But lifelong learning is so important if you want to live a full life and remain engaged.”

In recognition of her founding contribution to the study of aging and her commitment to improving the quality of life of seniors, their caregivers and families, Royal Roads University will present Chappell with an honorary doctorate at the Spring 2018 Convocation Ceremony June 12.