Interview with Greet Cardon about IDC GRAY

“We’re going to knock on a lot of doors, to get more funding for research into ageing, ánd to get ageing on the agenda.”

Professor Greet Cardon (Department of Movement and Sports Sciences) is the promoter/spokesperson for GRAY (Ghent University Research for Ageing Young), one of the interdisciplinary research consortia (IDC) at Ghent University. She brought Jacqueline De Jaeger to the oral defence of her proposal. At just 86 springs young, this spirited lady is one of GRAY’s direct stakeholders. A conversation about fitness training for seniors, non-slip footpaths, and lots of impact.

Tell me, how exactly did you two get to know each other?

Jacqueline De Jaeger: “That was 25 years ago. I had seen an announcement in the magazine from the CM for seniors’ fitness training classes organised by Ghent University. I signed up because I like to do that and wanted to stay fit. I’ve been coming every Tuesday to do exercises ever since.”

Greet Cardon: “I had just started working at Ghent University and was asked to organise lessons as part of a course on exercise and health. As a practicum, the students had to give such training courses for different target groups, including seniors, and those classes are still running today. It’s about strength, balance, flexibility, etc. So general fitness for seniors. For us, it’s also a very good way to maintain a connection with seniors, by working with them every week. If we occasionally have to test something for research, then it’s a very useful sounding board. We would like to maintain and strengthen this within the consortium. We get a lot of spontaneous feedback about the exercises, what they like to do and what they don’t like to do, in any case.”

Jacqueline De Jaeger: “No games, for example, because those are more hazardous. You might fall or hurt yourself some other way.”

The new consortium will conduct research into ‘ageing young’. What does this entail?

Greet Cardon: Ageing young is about being healthy and living a full, happy life as you grow older. We want to boost all research related to this and make it public knowledge as much as possible. So we don’t necessarily want people to get older – that’s not so much the question from the target group. Most people want to stay fit, healthy, and happy for as long as possible, and we unfortunately see that this often doesn’t work with the elderly. The theme is very broad: physical health, fitness, but also mental health, loneliness, mental well-being, etc.

Is there sufficient attention for healthy ageing in our society?

Jacqueline De Jaeger: “I guess it’s about 50/50, probably. Nowadays, especially in Ghent, I find that they pay little attention to the elderly. Fortunately, it’s better along the coast.”

Greet Cardon: “You said something about that at the end of the oral defence of the project, didn’t you? Do you remember what I’m talking about?”

Jacqueline De Jaeger: “Yeah, I guess that might’ve made a bit of a difference, huh? What I said back then was, ‘We’ve contributed to society all our lives, and now we expect to get something in return.’ That’s only normal, isn’t it?”

How did you become interested in ageing young?

Greet Cardon: “I studied physical education and physical therapy myself. During my internship, and then during the two years I worked as a physiotherapist, I always enjoyed working with the elderly. It’s super satisfying work; you get a lot in return. Lately, I’ve noticed more interest in elderly people both in the research group and in the calls from funders, and when I was asked to give a keynote on the subject, I really started to delve into it. This resulted in a project on the relationship between physical activity and cognitive functioning. We noticed that very little had been done on this in Flanders. Other countries are already organising many activities that combine physical and cognitive challenges in order to prevent dementia. I really thought it was something worth focusing on.”

What prompted you to submit a proposal in the call for new IDC consortia?

Greet Cardon: “Ageing is, of course, a very interdisciplinary matter. We already knew about various research groups that were working on this in our own and other faculties, for example on the risk of falling, but also on the fundamental processes of ageing, such as biological processes. When we saw the call, we thought it was something for us. Just because so much is already happening around here, we thought the time was ripe to bundle everything and make it more publicly known. Because, even in our department, there are different people working on aspects of ageing in totally different areas, but the various researchers still speak far too little to each other. I think we can improve that if we have that necessary ‘glue’, a co-ordinator who can bring those things together and really strengthen them.”

Did you get to know new people while preparing your project proposal?

Greet Cardon: “Absolutely, especially in that fundamental part. Of course, I was very happy that it was accepted, but I also thought, ‘Suppose it isn’t accepted, but bringing all those people together was still interesting’.”

What is the purpose of the consortium?

Greet Cardon: “Two things: on the one hand, bringing the groups working on ageing together more cohesively. And, on the other hand, we’re going to knock on a lot of doors, to get more funding for research into ageing, ánd to get ageing on the agenda. We already say health in all policies, so we should also be saying the ageing process in all policies. Just yesterday, I saw a programme about a town in Italy that was fully equipped for the elderly, with non-slip footpaths and all kinds of fun concepts. There are still so many opportunities to have an impact with our research. And we’ve also noticed that everyone is very open to it. You can’t ignore the ageing of society. The costs associated with the elderly suffering from illness and other problems also play a role. If we can avoid these issues by getting older better, it will also have an important impact. But the most important thing, the ultimate goal, is to improve the health and quality of life of the elderly, of course. That’s what we ultimately do it for.”

Can you give some more specific examples of what you want to focus on?

Greet Cardon: “We want to start by strengthening ongoing projects. Within our own research group, we have our projects on cognition and movement, on the one hand. For example, we are now setting up a study to further test enriched walking with seniors. Enriched walking means that you also are cognitively engaged while walking, and therefore not only become fitter but also train your brain. It’s sometimes called brain jogging. And then, we also have a study on low impact running. We see that walking in itself is actually very preventive for all kinds of ailments, so if we can teach this in a way that reduces the negative effects (the impact when you put your feet down), it can contribute greatly to healthy ageing. In other research groups, I am thinking of, for example, ‘Hello Jenny’ within the communication sciences – a project that aims to monitor and reduce loneliness. Or of the rehabilitation sciences, where they have built up a lot of expertise on preventing falls. What we really need to do with GRAY is to find out: ‘Is that public knowledge, is there enough outreach already, can we reinforce that?’ There is a wealth of products that can be used to help us age even healthier and happier.”

What do you think should be investigated, Mrs De Jaeger? We’ve already talked about physical fitness. So are there any problems you’d like to see the new group working on?

Jacqueline De Jaeger: “What I’m also working on to stay healthy are dietary supplements. I feel good about that, but it costs a lot and they don’t actually know yet if they really work and which ones can best help me. So there are still a lot of questions around the role of dietary supplements for the elderly.”

Is there anything else you find difficult?

Jacqueline De Jaeger: “I like to cycle, but I find that very dangerous here in Ghent. I only do that on the coast.”

Greet Cardon: “That’s about town planning again, naturally. We also are currently running a project using virtual reality to see how we can make the city more bicycle-friendly for the elderly. In addition to our department, Geography, and Public Health and Primary Care are also involved in this.”

How important are these IDC now for interdisciplinary research and social research transfer?

Greet Cardon: “I think it’s very important, especially for that societal value creation. I think interdisciplinary research is still somewhat feasible without the IDC. But there are so many opportunities to have an impact, while everyone is already overworked, that you can’t take advantage of them all without the support of an IDC co-ordinator. We also have an IOF business development manager here and if you had a chance to see everything that he accomplishes… I expect that’s going to be similar for the IDC.”

How does GRAY want to collaborate with the target group?

Greet Cardon: “We are going to install a diverse sounding board group that will support the consortium as a whole, and we also want to involve as many elderly as possible in the projects themselves. I’m thinking, for example, of the cognition project. There, we’re going to do focus groups with seniors, we’re going to do walk-alongs: really take the seniors for a walk outside, see what they find feasible, what they don’t find feasible.

We have also developed an outreach plan, in which we want to involve the various stakeholders. On the one hand, the elderly themselves and the general public. We want to inform and involve them through flyers or presence at large-scale events. On the other hand, we really do have specific stakeholders with whom we will work to ensure that things are implemented, such as the Flemish Elderly Council, but also the Flemish Institute for Healthy Living, the health insurance funds, the Agency for Care and Health, etc., and even more broadly, the WHO, for example. I was in Geneva just last week, working specifically on the new guidelines for movement for the elderly.”

Where would you like to play another part, Mrs De Jaeger?

Jacqueline De Jaeger: “I don’t think I’m going to play a big role anymore. I’m too old for that.”

Is there an age limit?

Greet Cardon: “No, no, absolutely not. But as I said, we’re now going to make an appeal to ask who would like to get together once in a while to give input on the project, and of course, we’d love to have Jacqueline with us. Yes, you’re still our joker, Jacqueline! And our ambassador, in a small way, too!”