Aging by the book: a reading circle

Betsy Mann

As we age, issues come up that weren’t so pressing when we were younger, issues like our changing roles in society and our families; beliefs or stereotypes about older adults; loss and loneliness; freedom from earlier expectations; and end of life issues. Where do people go to explore these topics with peers in a safe, non-judgemental setting?

Wendy Robbins

Wendy Robbins, a resident of Sandy Hill, was asking herself this question as she embarked on a second career as a librarian after retiring from the CBC. While completing a Masters degree in Information Studies at Ottawa U, she met Trudy Medcalf, a social gerontologist whose work focused on “elder circles.” In 2012, their complementary enthusiasms became the impetus to start a program featuring a facilitated discussion group built around topics related to aging. Trudy was interested in creating a “collaborative learning” experience, so their program would not be a course but rather an exploration and exchange of experiences and ideas. Wendy’s interest was in books and libraries, so selected readings would be the starting point from which the participants could share their own thoughts and life lessons. Thus was born “Aging by the Book: A Reading Circle,” a six-week facilitated group program, held in various branches of the Ottawa Public Library.

Every week, participants receive photocopied pages with the readings for the following week: a poem, a newspaper article, a short story, an essay, an extract from a novel, a few pages of a memoir—the selections are very diverse. “We choose material from a wide range of writers,” Wendy explains. “Some authors you might see are Alice Munro, Mary Oliver, Rohinton Mistry, Richard Wagamese, Atul Gawande, and Maya Angelou, among others. Our reading lists vary.” Wendy is quick to point out that this is not a book club. The readings are chosen to resonate with issues that participants may be dealing with, or may have dealt with, in their own lives. In the discussion, they can explore their reflections on what they’ve read and connect with others who share their point of view. Or perhaps they’ll be stimulated to think differently when they hear another perspective that they hadn’t previously considered.


Is the program responding to a need? In answer, Wendy observes, “We always have eight to ten participants register. People come for the first meeting and then they keep coming back for the next five weeks. I often see that people really look forward to connecting with each other at the next meeting. A few groups have bonded so strongly that they have continued to meet on their own after the six weeks are up.” Until now, the program has only been offered in English, but a few francophone former participants are hoping to set up a program in French in the new year.

“From our beginnings seven years ago, the whole thing has grown organically,” Wendy explains. “We started off doing just one program a year and now we can do four or five.” In 2017, Wendy was able to put together a facilitator’s manual and train a number of other facilitators, with the support of the library and a grant from the Community Foundation. “Once people participate in the program, many of them want to do the same for others,” she says. “We find that co-facilitation works best, so with several programs running at the same time now, our nine trained facilitators are kept busy.” All facilitators are volunteers and the program is free for participants; photocopying is contributed by the library.

“I feel strongly about these programs taking place in libraries,” Wendy emphasizes. “Libraries are community places, open to everyone without judgement. The only program requirements are that you’re a reader and you’re interested in topics related to aging.”

Are you interested? There is still time to register for two sessions this fall: at the Main Branch, Tuesdays, October 15 to November 19, 2:30 – 4:00 p.m. ( and at the Centennial Branch, Thursdays, October 31 to December 4, 1:30 – 3:00 pm ( Watch the OPL website for other sessions in the winter and the spring. For more information about Aging by the Book, including sample reading lists, visit