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With $10-million gift, McMaster embarks on study of ‘optimal aging’

Suzanne Labarge, a business woman, McMaster alumna, and former member of the school’s board of governors, retired as the vice-chairman and chief risk manager of the Royal Bank of Canada in 2004.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

McMaster University has netted a $10-million gift from an outside donor, a sizable injection of cash that will fund inter-disciplinary research into the subject of "optimal aging" – a field the university believes is worthy of deep investigation at a time of shifting demographics.

The gift comes courtesy of Suzanne Labarge, a businesswoman, McMaster alumna, and former member of the school's board of governors, who retired as the vice-chairman and chief risk manager of the Royal Bank of Canada in 2004.

Speaking from her home in Toronto on Thursday, Ms. Labarge described Canada's aging population as "one of the biggest issues that the country faces."

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The money will kick-start research projects and finance an internet portal, free of advertising, that will answer questions on the topic of aging.

The aim of the portal, Ms. Labarge said, is to move the elderly toward independence and away from reliance on government services.

"If we don't deal with aging broadly, we can't afford the costs of it, as we're beginning to find out," Ms. LaBarge said.

Statistics Canada has cited a low fertility rate and increased life expectancy as reasons for Canada's rising median age. And as the first generation of baby boomers approach age 65, Canada's ranks of seniors will continue to grow.

"Quite obviously, aging is a hugely significant issue for the whole country," university president Patrick Deane said.

McMaster professors will be eligible to apply for grants up to $100,000, according to the school's dean of the faculty of health sciences, John Kelton.

The first slate of projects to receive funds includes research into car designs for older drivers and passengers, and how yoga can help older women with arthritis.

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The initiative also brings the university into the controversial debate over accepting outside donations while maintaining academic independence. Recently, York University rejected a plan to partner with a think-tank founded by former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie when professors argued that the group would limit their academic freedom.

Jim Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers said he does not dispute that donations are welcome at universities.

"We're always happy when wealthy people want to give donations to universities," Mr. Turk said.

But any university should abide by a few key principles in accepting a gift, Mr. Turk said.

Firstly, it should be clear that a donor's suggestions or conditions fit with research and work the institution is already doing, and the university must prove to the donor that the money is being spent on the agreed initiatives.

The study of aging, Mr. Turk said, is a clear fit for McMaster, with its strong work in health and medicine.

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Ms. Labarge will sit on an advisory committee that will be periodically briefed on the initiative's progress. According to the gift agreement, the committee will "provide broader oversight" for the program.

Ms. LaBarge will have no power over how money is given out, according to McMaster.

"It's more, probably, for my edification than [a] control mechanism," Ms. LaBarge said.

The gift agreement also states that "the gift does not and shall not, in any way ... constrain academic freedom on campus."

The agreement also states that if research "needs to deviate from that described in the original proposal ... no change in direction will be undertaken without consultation and approval by the donor."

A committee composed of scientists from the university, meanwhile, will make decisions about which research projects receive funds.

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