There’s no one kind of ‘older person’, and often, describing them as such overlooks the enormous diversity of this group. Policymakers and service providers have typically relied on one-size-fits-all approaches, which are not always appropriate for diverse populations within the umbrella of ‘older people’. Here, Dr Amy Barron outlines a new toolkit for policymakers to use in co-developing interventions and services, to meet place-based needs.
- Policymakers can do more to account for the diversity present within ‘older people’.
- In Greater Manchester, researchers and local authorities have been UK leaders in the WHO’s call for ‘age-friendly’ cities and communities.
- Dr Amy Barron has created the ‘Beyond Older Age: Approaches to Understand the Diverse Lives of Older People’ guide, for policymakers and practitioners to use when shaping engagement strategies.
Since 2017, researchers from The University of Manchester have been devising and advocating approaches to understanding the diverse lives of older people that can be tailored to the particular places and communities in which older people live. This work has culminated in a simple guide that policymakers and researchers can use.
We’re all ageing. Increasingly, many of us are lucky enough to make it well into older age. At the same time, the population is ageing too. It matters to all of us that cities reflect the older people that live in and use them, and enable them to flourish.
Dr Barron has long made the case that policymakers must appreciate the true diversity of what it means to be ‘older’ in policy, not simply to counter often offensive tropes of what older people are, but to make a real difference to the varied lives that are lived out amidst this all-encompassing and rather broad-brush category.
Manchester, and Greater Manchester, have prioritised the voices of older people in the creation of what the World Health Organisation call more ‘age-friendly’ environments for some time – which is why it has served as the testbed for research.
Launched on 1 October 2022, The Ageing in Place Pathfinder is the latest iteration of Greater Manchester’s endeavours. It seeks to better understand the complex reality of older people’s lives. The programme is made up of eight pathfinder partnerships, which aim to ensure that older people’s voices are heard and valued as part of a place-based approach. However, we need to think carefully and strategically about how we engage them.
Understanding diverse lives
Dr Barron has developed an approach that can meet this challenge, one which is bound by the following four principles: immersion, participation, flexibility, and creativity. Promising to create rich and honest material, this approach embraces messiness rather than trying to distil catch-all facts and silver-bullet solutions.
By advocating these principles, this work supplements – and even unsettles – the expected, go-to methods that are usually used to engage older people, and indeed, other complex identities. This includes surveys that tend to create rather sweeping datasets and overarching narratives. To provide a greater emphasis to the diversity and complexity of local places and older people’s lives, we need to turn instead to qualitative methods which, as social scientists will tell you, are well-seasoned at ‘getting at’ the complex messiness of our communities.
Immersion means to become entangled with the lives of participants rather than observing from afar. Immersion is about entering into a dialogue with people and places rather than extracting generalisable information. Such an embeddedness in people, places, cultures or with social groups can help to better understand what is important to participants by approaching place from their perspective.
To work in a participatory way is to give participants an explicit steering capacity in the direction of research, its focus, how it is done, and its outcomes. It involves participants in the exploration of ideas, rather than having them respond to a set of pre-defined questions or gathering their views on prescribed topics.
Flexibility involves an ability to improvise and shift strategies on the fly to meet challenges and grasp opportunities. It encourages a responsiveness and adaptiveness to different contexts and situations. When research is approached flexibly, methods are understood in a looser way rather than as rigidly defined ‘off-the-peg’ tools. This means the methods used are appropriate for, and sensitive to, the needs of participants.
Creativity is often equated with being able to ‘think outside the box’. Creativity does not have to be extreme or draw on the creative arts; it can be as subtle as asking questions in a slightly different way in a conversation. Creativity might equally involve introducing an activity such as mapping, writing, or talking around an object into a more traditional research method, such as interviewing.
Within this overarching approach, there are many different tools that could be flexibly drawn upon. These might include photo go-alongs, participant packs, life-history interviews, or collage. Flexibly drawing on a combination of participatory and creative methods can offer an in-depth understanding of what it means to be an older person and their place-based needs.
This is not a simple plug-and-play method – and for good reason. The key word here is perhaps ‘flexibility’. If older people are different, then our approaches for understanding them need to be different too.
While a growing number of cities across the globe are making their environments more inclusive and accessible for older people, and while exciting methods and approaches are being explored to ensure the voices of older people are placed central in the formation of policies, much more can be done to represent the full diversity of what it means to be an older urban individual.
The approach outlined here and in the ‘Beyond Older Age’ booklet cannot ever offer a single silver bullet approach. What it does offer is a general approach for engagement that can be tailored to local contexts and individuals. These methods can be used to better represent older people’s lives in policy and research: something pivotal to the creation of age-friendly cities.
Local and combined authorities should use the tools and principles outlined in this work to help develop place-based interventions. This could include embedding in the development pathway of new policies a requirement to engage with diverse groups of older people, or to co-develop in a creative and flexible way, rather than impose.
At a national level, the Department for Health and Social Care, NIHR, and NHS England should adopt the creative, participatory methods included here as examples of best practice, for researchers and policymakers to draw on.
By understanding individuals within the context of their whole lives and in relation to the places they choose to spend time, this approach provides a means for policy communities to think beyond all broad-brush social categories, not necessarily just older age. It brings the differences that make up social groups to the fore.