Four older people learning how to be researchers

Using participatory research to explore loneliness and social connections

I’m standing in front of a group of ten 60- to 80-year olds gathered in a small church hall in Kew. They’d all signed up to something called ‘participatory research training’ as part of a project on loneliness we undertook in partnership with the local Neighbourhood Association.

Participatory research is a valuable tool that works well for sensitive topics and issues that affect a particular demographic group. In such cases, interviewees might feel more comfortable and offer deeper insights when interviewed by somebody affected by the same issues. The shared understanding and empathetic approach can result in a more productive interview.

My role was to train the group, most of whom had no previous research experience. It was a tough job to say the least. They challenged everything, including the wording of their objectives, the phrasing of questions and even the font size of the handouts. I learned a lot from them and I understood that their questions and criticisms reflected how seriously they took their role. They wanted to make sure they were doing everything right and doing the best they could to support fellow residents.

Many of the trainees lived alone and had a keen interest in issues of loneliness. Others had previously worked in a social care role and wanted to make use of their former skills. Some were simply interested in finding out what participatory research is all about. The most important thing was their shared enthusiasm for improving things for older people living alone in their area.

During the training, they came up with their own research objectives, learned how to put together an interview guide and practised interviewing each other before being sent out into the field as professional researchers. We gave them all the tools they needed, including a digital voice recorder, to conduct depth interviews with local people who lived alone. Between them, they carried out 32 interviews with residents.

So what did this group of specially trained mature researchers bring to the project? They were able to offer an empathetic ear and, as they were local to the area, they understood many of the frustrations and possibilities. Some found new friends with a shared interests or hobbies.

Our newly-trained researchers’ enthusiasm for the project was even stronger when they came back to talk about what they had uncovered in their interviews and what they wanted to do about it. This session led to an action plan of ideas to support older people living alone. The ideas all came from residents – whether interviewers or interviewees.

One notable result was the transformation of the Neighbourhood Association’s befriending scheme into a ‘companionship scheme’, which matches individuals according to interests, hobbies and activities they would like to attend. This stemmed from the researchers’ finding that many people found the term ‘befriending’ a little patronising and artificial and many preferred the idea of a companion to help reignite hobbies and interests or provide support with getting out the house. We hope the new scheme will help people to build genuine social connections with others in their area.

As well as the actions taken as a result of the research findings, the research process itself brought about positive changes. The training engaged people who may already have been experiencing loneliness, helping them to learn a new skill and meet others in similar circumstances.

If you’d like to find out more about participatory research and how it could help you to give communities a voice, strengthen connections, or evaluate and improve a project or service, please contact louise.duffy@chrysalisresearch.co.uk, or call us for an informal chat. 

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