Skip to main content

Engaging older people in research

Jana Kralova and Renske Visser from the Department of Social & Policy Sciences reflect on their engagement workshop with Oldfield Park Friendly Club.

Based in the Centre for Death & Society (CDAS), both Jana and Renske are undertaking postgraduate study that involves older people and end-of-life issues. They were keen to develop their skills in engaging with this section of society in sensitive research topics. As such, the project was not linked directly to their research but rather, was a means for them to learn how best to engage with such a demographic.

As CDAS researchers, they were aware that older people are more susceptible to isolation, weaker networks, frail health and lower socioeconomic capital, all of which can reduce quality of life. They were therefore keen to engage in a way that might help to alleviate some of these issues, an opportunity at the very least to enjoy some good conversation and for those involved to learn from one another.

Project overview

We chose to engage with older people using the topic of Christmas. As we both come from non-English backgrounds (from the Czech Republic and the Netherlands respectively), we knew our experiences of Christmas were different from the UK and we thought that this could be a good starting point for discussion with older people.

As part of our research focuses on older people still living independently in their own communities, we decided to focus on social clubs in Bath. We secured a space at the Oldfield Park Friendly Club although this didn’t prove easy - our experiences of negotiating access to the Club are captured in a separate case study available through this project’s webpage.

The Club regularly invites speakers, musicians or entertainers and so we were able to use one of these hour-long slots to deliver a presentation on the way Christmas is celebrated in our home countries. Our presentation was followed by a discussion over tea and cake comparing different rituals in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and the UK. The older people were also encouraged to share their childhood memories of Christmas; many said that presently they felt Christmas had become ‘too commercial’. A number quizzed us about our day-to-day research. As we research in a sensitive area, we had to carefully assess how to answer on a case-by-case basis.

Negotiating access

Our project aimed to engage older people living independently in their own communities so our first steps involved the mapping of the local stakeholders, service providers, identifying the gate keepers and negotiating access to the sites. As part of our research, we located a Directory of Services for Older People compiled by Bath & NE Somerset Council. This Directory was invaluable, providing phone numbers of social clubs. We noted that most of the clubs didn’t have email addresses, so phoning seemed the most appropriate point of contact.

Negotiating access with the club that we chose (Oldfield Park Friendly Club) required patience and resilience. They were initially hesitant about our approach and we ended up having to speak to five members of the Club (including the Chair and Vice-Chair) before securing access.

In particular, they were interested in understanding our motivations for delivering the free workshop, for example:

  • why we wanted to spend time with older people
  • why we cared
  • why we were doing the project and what we were going to get from it

We noted that our ability to provide evidence that we were from the University of Bath made a strong and positive impression. We also found that we had to spend time with each person we spoke to discussing quite personal issues (illnesses or day-to-day problems). This may have been because the individuals were isolated and hadn’t spoken to someone for a while.

Once we had secured buy-in from the Club’s gatekeepers, they were supportive in helping us plan our workshop. We were taken by the fact that the Club had few resources - no projectors, no microphones, no speakers, no internet access. We’d rather taken for granted that these things would be available, so had to adjust our plans accordingly.

Our initial calls were met with suspicion and we realised that it would have been better to have a basic template ahead of the calls outlining what we wanted to say. This would have helped us to ensure that we enhanced our professional tone and used appropriate language.

What we gained from the experience

As our research is related to older people, we found it important to explore their views and opinions, to learn more about their everyday lives and to gain experience in how best to engage them. Furthermore, Renske has continued to visit the Social Club following the project and hopes to recruit some participants from it for her doctoral research.

This was a cross-cultural experience for us. We shared our own experiences of Christmas but also, learned much about what is important about Christmas for older people in the UK.

What our partners gained

The Oldfield Park Friendly Club came to appreciate our presence for a variety of reasons.

Our project:

  • was an opportunity to relate to the ‘younger generation’ and to establish meaningful conversations where people’s stories and opinions were listened to and valued
  • provided an accommodating social interaction - Club members were the experts about how the UK celebrates Christmas and, as we were open to being ’taught’ by them, this created a positive dynamic
  • offered a variation in the Club’s program of social activities - the Club’s social program is very repetitive so our presence proved something new and exciting - the Club is also very under-resourced and so the cakes we brought with us were very much appreciated
  • widened their networks - Renske’s continued attendance at the Club has meant that some members will be invited to CDAS’ summer conference where they will be able to promote their work but also, where they will be recognised as valuable members of the CDAS network with a hope of establishing further collaboration

Our research topics - end-of-life issues - are clearly sensitive ones. Club members did ask us about our research and generally conveyed one of three reactions:

  • desire to know more (often preceded with them offering a personal experience of the death of a friend or family member)
  • desire to know more about the research process and related matters (in a way, interviewing us)
  • polite interest, followed by a return to the workshop focus of Christmas

Our project provided a valuable testing ground for how best to explore sensitive research topics in a public domain.

What we'd do differently

Most of the things we would do differently are related to practical issues. So we would bring a microphone (some of the older people had hearing issues), rearrange seating to better facilitate group discussions, bring physical objects that can be handed round as a tool to prompt stories and memories and allow longer for interactions with more members of the group (we only had one hour).

We were initially surprised that our early phone calls were met with hesitancy, even hostility, and they proved a test of our negotiation skills. It seemed though that our ability to listen patiently, to be open-minded, polite and flexible paid dividends. We listened carefully to people’s thoughts and opinions on our workshop plans and changed them in light of the feedback that we received. This way of working was key to gaining the buy-in of the Club.

At the outset, we rather thought that the offer of the workshop as ‘free’ would be a key selling point but it didn’t work out this way. In reality, the ’free’ nature of the workshop made some suspicious of our intentions and it was only when the sincerity of our intent became clear and when they understood our motivations, that this stopped being an issue.

It became evident to us that negotiating access with a social club requires establishing a quality relationship, taking time to build trust and demonstrating how the relationship is mutually beneficial. This means that you can’t rush into the delivery of the public engagement project.

Our tips for other researchers

Negotiating access to groups of older people can take time - see our tips on how best to negotiate access.

When discussing sensitive research, be attuned to individuals’ reactions and accommodate the discussion in a way most comfortable for them. This requires emotional intelligence and flexibility.

Get off campus to show sincerity of intent. The fact that we went to the Club and took time to talk to them was really appreciated.

Think about the future - we’ve maintained contact with the Club beyond our one workshop as a means to develop relationships and trust that will hopefully lead to future research collaborations of mutual benefit.

Contact us

If you want to discuss how you might engage publics in or with your research, the Public Engagement Unit can help.