This webpage captures the experience of project organisers and older evaluators involved with LinkAge Plus pilot projects funded by the Department of Work and Pensions.
“Putting effort into capacity building and supporting individuals …
has the potential for leaving a legacy of skills, motivation, and the habit of asking questions”
People over 50 have a wealth of life experience on which they can build, and practical and professional skills to share. Given the opportunity, many would love to make a contribution to society that gives them satisfaction and helps other older people too.
Any project or research concerned with services for older people would do well to involve people from that age group, rather than leaving the planning and evaluation solely to professionals who, although well qualified and experienced, may have no direct experience of the challenges and rewards that ageing brings.
This approach is supported by the Audit Commission*:
“Councils need to engage with older people in commissioning, designing, and delivering both mainstream and targeted services. Older people's champions and representative boards can play an important role in assessing and evaluating the effect of local services on older people's lives.”
* The Audit Commission (July 2008) Don't Stop Me Now: Preparing for an ageing population . http://www.audit-commission.gov.uk/reports/
Project managers who have used older people as volunteer evaluators told us what it involves:
* Careful recruitment and selection
Enthusiasm goes a long way, but it's important to have the right person for the task in hand.
* Training and preparation of volunteers
Training in research skills is essential, and confidence-building and reassurance are also important, especially for people who have been out of touch for a while. Involve volunteers right from the start: for example, when they help to develop the survey questions, interviews will be easier and more meaningful.
* Recognising individual skills
Interviewing may not be everyone's cup of tea, and other tasks such as data input and analysis also contribute to the results.
* Treating volunteer evaluators and researchers as equal partners
For example, involving them in developing survey questions as well as going out interviewing.
Volunteer evaluators don't get paid, but there are still costs. Generous staff time is needed for good quality support and supervision.
“You get out what you put in – if you put in high intensive support
and commitment, then you will get a good quality resource”
Project organiser, LinkAge Plus
“You need skills as an organiser of volunteers – you have to match people's skills with what you want”
“The older people are equal partners, not something you exploit because they're cheap, or because it's politically correct or fashionable”
Research project organiser
LinkAge Plus was a set of eight pilot projects funded between 2006 and 2008 by the Department of Work and Pensions. The aim was to build evidence about joined-up services for older people, and how far they deliver better outcomes and are cost-efficient.
Lancaster University 's Department of Continuing Education recruited a group of older people from its Senior Learners' Programme and Research Methods courses to evaluate the work of Lancaster and district's pilot, “50 Forward”.
In Leeds, the LinkAge Plus pilot focussed on the existing network of support groups for older people, building a successful research partnership with academic researchers at Leeds University who trained and supported older volunteers to take part in the research and evaluation work.
In Gateshead several independent organisations were funded by the pilot, creating an ambitious partnership. Older people were identified who were interested in helping to research the benefits of this approach. The project manager worked with that group of people to develop their skills, and they helped in the interviewing process for the project research.
* The importance of the initial interview and of taking up references.
* Putting in the time to build up familiarity and trust with people.
* The value of consistent ongoing support from research staff.
* The opportunity to keep going over the aims and purpose of the work in different settings until evaluators feel confident that they understand and are happy with them.
* The need for reassurance for people who are engaging in an unfamiliar task, and trying to relate research methodology such as interviewing to their own experience.
* Maintaining training and support throughout the process.
* Ensuring that expenses such as for travel and phone calls are covered with minimum bureaucracy.
* Making the process fun as well as useful – providing lunches, teas and coffees, including time at meetings for people to get to know each other and the project team as well as working.
For example, the information-gathering meeting that led to this webpage was followed by the opportunity to try out go-karting! This was a completely new experience for most participants – they'll never forget the day, and all had great fun as well as doing lots of useful work.
“I never thought I would get in a go-kart at my age and have such fun – when I can't even drive a car!”
Volunteer evaluator, aged 84
“The [volunteer evaluators'] knowledge of the local area, and what older people would find helpful and acceptable, was invaluable” Researcher supporting older evaluators
“Everyone who has sat down with your evaluators feels comfortable with them”
“It's very clear that the volunteer evaluators love the fact that they can use their skills, but they also realise that
they have to do a professional job”
Programme manager, Linkage Plus pilot
“We have benefited from having their life experience, life skills and wisdom”
“It's great being back in harness again”
Volunteer evaluator, former senior civil servant
“It's interesting, I've met new people, used my skills …
and I'll get older myself one day”
Volunteer evaluator, retired social worker
“When you're visiting and recording comments ...
I'm impressed at how very pleased people are to
see you – you're made to feel so welcome by people
you've never met before”
Retired school head, now a volunteer interviewer
“Structured interviews are a useful way of thinking about what's
being said when I'm visiting someone”
“What have I gained? Friendship more than anything”
Volunteer evaluator, 82 years
“I'm really enjoying being able to use again those skills I gained while working”
Volunteer researcher, retired Tax Office worker
Older people who have become evaluators told us what is involved:
* Being interviewed and vetted: an important first step.
* Training and learning new skills: for example, you could learn how to interview someone, how to use a digital recording device, helping to draw up suitable questions for a questionnaire.
* Committing a few hours each week, short-term or long-term: once you have got into the swing of it, there may be other opportunities to use your skills after the initial project finishes.
* Meeting people: you come into contact with project organisers, other researchers, older people in different situations with a lifetime's stories to tell.
* Using past experience: it can be an opportunity to brush up skills used before retirement or picked up along the way.
* Getting out of the house and having fun!
“What have I gained?
Giving something back instead of just taking out”
“A volunteer can bring a ray of light to other people”
Margery Scott was the caterer at a finishing school for young ladies for many years: “It was hard work, but wonderful work.”
Rita Savage retired eight years ago from ministry in the Methodist church. Doing voluntary work with a local support group for older people led to a training course on interviewing techniques, adding to her previous experience. “It's such a delight to walk into the supermarket and meet people who know me and know something about me.”
Liz Rodgers took early retirement from HM Revenue and Customs two years ago, and was looking for somewhere to use her research skills. “Being a grandma is the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world!”
Jill Robinson retired in June 2006 after 21 years as a social work manager in different posts, mostly with adults with physical disability. “One thing I wished for during my whole career was a proper county-wide information service. [As an evaluator] it's great to be able to see this thing developing which is what I've always wanted.”
Betty Law used to work on the busy telephone switchboard at a major engineering company: “Soon I'll be celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary with a round-the-world cruise!”
Jean Buckley retired 20 years ago as head of a special school for children with severe learning difficulties – when she moved to a new city two years ago she volunteered to be a befriender of people who are housebound, then trained as an evaluator. “I've lived a very ordinary life, but I used to be a member of a dramatic society. I always played dotty old ladies when younger, and now I'm well on the way to becoming one!”
With thanks to all those who attended a lively meeting on 19 June 2008. The meeting brought together delegates from the Gateshead, Lancaster and Leeds LinkAge projects, and provided much of the material for this booklet.
The meeting was co-ordinated and facilitated by Fiona Frank, Senior Development Officer, Department of Continuing Education, Lancaster University , and funded by the Department of Work and Pensions.
The website text was researched and written by Helen Nicolson. Photographs by Jean Townsend and Helen Nicolson. Additional material is drawn from a paper co-written by Jean Townsend, Senior Research Officer at the Centre for Health and Social Care, University of Leeds **.
The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Department for Work and Pensions or any other government department.
This booklet was produced at Lancaster University.
** Townsend J., Godfrey, M.& Denby, T. (2002). Involving older people as researchers. Conference presentation to the British Society of Gerontology.
For information about opportunities for Older People as Evaluators please contact:
Director, LinkAge Plus National Evaluation Acting Director
The Local Government Centre
Warwick Business School
University of Warwick
Tel: 024 7652 2312
Fax: 024 7657 2545