Patricia Allen (Part 1)

by Andrew McCutcheon

“Nothing about us, without us” 

Fifty years is no small amount of time. In that half-century, so many people have walked through the doors of the Kerby Centre who have helped make us who we are. 

Every single one of them is precious. From the volunteers, the staff, the management and our partners in government and other organizations: we wouldn’t be where we are today without each unique individual. 

However, there is one person whose name is impossible to separate when you talk about the origins and development of the Kerby Centre. This person has been given so many accolades and titles: she’s been called instrumental; she’s been called our founder. She was our CEO for decades, and she even has a scholarship in her name down at our very own University of Calgary. 

You can’t talk about the history of Kerby Centre without writing a story about Patricia Allen. 

Allen’s incredible contributions are well-documented, and almost too many to list, but we’ll try to cover as much as we can in the space that we have. Just know: we probably could have written one story a week this year just about her. Instead, we’ll dedicate a two-part story here over the next couple weeks to our illustrious founder.

Allen’s story starts a fair distance away from the here and now. She was born in Toronto on April 1, 1924. She stays out east until after graduated from both the University of Toronto and McGill, earning her a Bachelor of Arts in 1948 and a Bachelor of Social Work in 1961, respectively. 

She and her husband, Grant Allen, would move out west to Calgary in 1962, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. Not only did Patricia graduate with a Masters Degree in Social Work from the University of Calgary, she was the very first graduate from that program in 1969. 

To this day, Allen’s family and the U of C have established the Patricia Allen Memorial Scholarship, specifically for students who are studying issues affecting older adults, in the University’s social work program. 

In 1969, when Patricia was still a student and working as the Executive Director of Calgary’s Volunteer Bureau, she coordinated a seemingly simple event: a workshop on retirement planning. 

We don’t know either way if she knew it at the time, but this workshop would be the first domino that would go on to change the entire direction of Allen’s life. 

The workshop was held right there at the University. Many others attended the event, with some notable names recorded by Ken McGuire, author of a Kerby History document used in this writer’s research. 

Norman Bunnin, an account, avid volunteer and WW2 Vet, chaired the event. Speakers included Professor David Schonfield, a well-respected researcher in the field of gerontology, as those in attendance discussed a variety of subjects: financial planning, living arrangements, medical issues, recreation opportunities and volunteerism. 

Back then, Calgary was a much smaller city than it is today, with only a population of about 370,000. And yet, over 50 years in the future, we still are taking about similar issues when it comes to the well-being of seniors. It just goes to show how forward-thinking and innovative Patricia was for that era! 

According to McGuire’s history document, retirement was a different beast back in the late 60s.  

“Retirement meant you were ‘old’ and justified the exclusion of seniors from many spheres of activity,” he wrote. “Although Canada’s first Old Age Pension Act was passed in 1927, eligibility was limited and seniors were subjected to a strict ‘means test’ to obtain benefits.” 

“Retirement still meant a drastically reduced standard of living for many people.” 

What started as a simple retirement workshop blossomed as the interest and response was overwhelmingly positive. Eight of the original participants gathered on Nov. 10, 1969, to discuss further action. 

“In the course of the discussion, purposes for the emergence of a possible new structure were voiced; co-ordination and information on all programs available to seniors; publicity in making senior citizens, their needs and resources more visible; creation of a pressure group to safeguard the interest of senior citizens,” made up a good chunk of their plan. 

A general meeting open to the public on the subject was held on Nov. 18 at the Calgary Public Library. Hundreds showed up. In his opening remarks, Norman Bunnin said that “… you yourselves must state your needs and what you want done about them.” 

This philosophy would guide Patricia Allen and the Kerby Centre for its entire history. The idea that “nothing about us, without us,” with Patricia believing firmly that seniors must be involved in the decision making process. 

“She wanted seniors to work together to promote seniors issues,” said Susan Allen, her daughter, years later of her mother’s work. 

The scene was set. All it needed was a champion for the cause. And in next week’s article, we’ll see how Patricia Allen was exactly that person. 

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