Brian Dompe knows why the University of Alberta's new and innovative Supporting Healthy Aging by Peer Education and Support (SHAPES) program is so popular among Edmonton's seniors. It is one-of-a-kind health education program.

"It's a lot easier to accept health advice from someone who is a true peer and living through aging-related health changes than a 20- or 30-year-old telling you what you need to do," said the 70-year-old retired government employee.

Dompe is one of 12 health coaches participating in SHAPES a one-of-a-kind health education program designed to empower preventive health behavior and be delivered peer-to-peer among seniors.

"SHAPES grew out of the Division of Geriatric Medicine's community engagement lecture series on health concerns for older people," explained Adrian Wagg, a U of A geriatric physician in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

"We thought the best way to broaden our reach, garner true engagement and influence real change among seniors may be to use a train-the-trainer approach and cascade the model across seniors' centers and organizations," said Wagg.

Effect of the peer-to-peer healthcare program

Preliminary investigations into the 12-week program which contains four three-week interactive modules that focus on heart and bone health, as well as nutrition, physical activity, and social engagement show that the approach is working. It is the only intervention in North America that is peer-to-peer and covers content for preventing a broad range of diseases.

"Based on early feedback, seniors are enjoying the program, and it's increasing their health literacy and changing behaviors," said Saima Rajabali, clinical trials project coordinator in the Division of Geriatric Medicine.

"For example, they're tracking steps and every week their steps are increasing, and they get excited," Dompe said. "The health information he obtained over his six-week training period, provided by the Department of Medicine, was a wake-up call to get back on board with being active."

"I increased my activity including walking and running on my treadmill, elliptical and stationary bicycle. If I don't hit my quota, then I make a point of doing it. I also changed my portion sizes as I don't have great willpower," he said.

Rajabali added, "The health coaches are highly engaged and regularly make suggestions that improve the education. Right now, all our sessions are booked into the fall, and there is a wait-list."

The number of older adults surpassed the number of children in Canada in 2016, said Stephanie Gartner, a research assistant on the project. "And the numbers are projected to rise. In Canada, between 1960 and 2009, the proportion of seniors aged 65 plus rose from eight to 14%, and it's estimated it'll rise to 23 to 25% by 2036," she said.

As the SHAPES research continues, the team will investigate just how much it's influencing health behavior, added Wagg. The goal is also to have health coaches train more health coaches as the program expands.

"We hope that improved health literacy empowers people to interact with health-care professionals and manage their diseases, and also seek health-care resources more appropriately," added Wagg.