Interview with Mary Buzzell – Personhood Advocate, Member of Hamilton Aging in Community

by Thipiga Sivayoganathan, McMaster University recent graduate.


Mary Buzzell, resident at Amica retirement home in Dundas, is a retired nurse educator and strong advocate for promoting mental well-being among older adults. I had the pleasure of speaking to Mary recently and hearing about some of her philosophy for caring for older adults.


Central to Mary’s advocacy for caring for older adults is the concept of personhood, the idea of seeing the person as a whole rather than breaking them down into parts. Too often, we assign labels to people, thereby eliminating the person and focusing only on their problems. By overlooking the person, we risk detracting from their personhood and making the individual feel dehumanized. This practice of labeling people by their problems is especially prevalent among older adults.


Healthcare providers also assign labels to patients that effectively act as a barrier to getting to know the person behind the medical chart. Examples of these labels include “ineffective individual coping” and “noncompliant”. However, knowledge of the person is important, at times more so than knowledge of the diagnosis.


Mary believes that teaching hospital staff about personhood is especially important considering the increasing number of hospital visits in older age. Hospital staff often fail to recognize the individual as a person and instead view them as a bundle of health issues. While the hospital is focused on maximizing efficiency and being quick about care, older adults are slower to keep up due to vision, hearing, and mental impairments. When caring for older adults, hospital staff must pace themselves. Additionally, older adults are often treated as things in hospitals where they are pulled upright or turned over without notification or permission. Instead, asking older adults for permission as well as trying to decrease their fear in a hospital setting can speed up the care process and provide a better hospital stay for the patient. Knowledge of the individual can increase quality of care by providing insight into the best way to treat the patient.


Unfortunately, a lack of awareness about personhood is not limited to the healthcare system. Caretakers and services catered towards older adults also use labels that detract from an older adult’s sense of personhood. As such, education is vital to promoting the concept of personhood among these staff. Maintaining an older adult’s sense of individuality by listening to the person and learning about their values, hopes and dreams is integral to acknowledging one’s personhood. If staff are made aware of this, they will be more likely to engage with the older adult that they serve.


Yet, respecting personhood is not meant to be intrusive but to kindle and maintain an individual’s sense of identity. Mary points out that a tenet of promoting personhood is to respect people’s privacy and their willingness to share information. When teaching this concept, it is important to consider the terminology involved and cater the concept towards older adults as well. Informing older adults of the concept of personhood can promote understanding of the value of maintaining a sense of identity in older age, especially as one’s social roles changes.


Mary has seen the positive impact of helping individuals recover their sense of personhood throughout her career. She recalls an instance in her role as a clinical specialist where she was able to talk to an isolated older woman. Through conversations with this woman, Mary discovered that one of her goals in life was to get her poetry printed in a book. Upon discovering this, Mary was able to find a benefactor to help make this dream possible. Mary recalls how the woman became a different person after achieving one of her dreams. Her humour came out, and she felt that she had a reason for living. Being able to achieve one of her goals reminded the woman of her personhood and as a result, she become more engaged in life. She realized that she did not have to take a backseat in life because she was older; it’s never too late to have a dream become reality.


Mary has used the concept to personhood throughout her career to learn about individuals and by doing so, was able to provide optimal care and an enhanced quality of life for her patients. However, her advocacy for the issues faced by older adults does not end there. Not only is Mary an advocate of educating individuals on the importance of personhood in later life, she is also engaged in activities that address housing issues among older adults.


When living in Burlington, Mary became interested in housing options for older adults during a time when a lack of government support led to an increase in homelessness among older adults. As a result, she joined the Burlington Age-Friendly Senior’s Council and researched housing alternatives provided for older adults across the globe. Through this investigation, the council came across the concept of co-sharing a home. Co-sharing a home allows individuals who cannot afford to live on their own to instead share a home with another individual. The committee researched how a co-sharing initiative could be introduced within Halton and created a manual called the “Halton HomeShare Toolkit” based on the home-sharing models from other countries. Mary admits that it is a lot of work getting people to live together. They have to want to live together, have compatible values, and decide the parameters of the home. Indeed, the slogan for the Toolkit in the manual is “Good for many, not for everyone”. The service is very individualized. This program may not be suitable for everyone but could change the lives of many individuals simply by having the option to co-share. All this information was included in the manual which was later adopted into some Halton housing projects through Community Development Halton. The HomeShare Toolkit is an ongoing success that matches people to live together and provides an alternate way of living comfortably in old age.


Hamilton has also adopted this manual into some housing projects that could provide alternate, more affordable options for older adults. Symbiosis is a service that seeks to pair an older adult with a graduate student from McMaster University for a mutually beneficial housing relationship. Though the project is in its initial stages, it is a very exciting step towards alternate housing and intergenerational communication that can be beneficial for older adults as well as graduate students.


Mary Buzzell continues to inform and inspire the community with her ideas of personhood and engagement in other issues pertaining to older adults. Her ideas on promoting personhood as well as affordable housing can improve the lives of many vulnerable older adults. Mary remains engaged in community initiatives in order to learn from and contribute to healthy aging practices.