Just chatting?

It’s good to talk – but not on the job. The message most of us
receive at work is to keep our heads down and stay busy. And while
this might be a useful rule for many professions, new research
argues that the care industry needs to rethink the rulebook.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that older people enjoy thinking and
talking about their past. Researchers at the Growing Older Research
Programme, a network of projects funded by the Economic and Social
Research Council, decided to explore this. They carried out a study
which investigated the benefits that conversation and reminiscence
can have for older people in care, using structured activities and
interviews to test their ideas.1

Researchers led by Dr Kevin McKee at the University of Sheffield
recruited 142 volunteers living in various local nursing homes and
began by assessing their “quality of life” using indicators such as
psychological morale and morbidity. They then held weekly workshops
for a month, in which participants talked or wrote about their past
in groups and individually. Props were used to inspire
reminiscence, including old objects, photographs, poems and local
history documents. Focus groups consisting of care staff,
participants and relatives were interviewed about opportunities and
barriers to reminiscence, and a control group (who were not
involved in any activities) were also monitored. After a month of
workshops, the researchers re-assessed their participants’ “quality
of life” indicators and returned a month later to assess them

Two key findings emerged from this project. The first was that
regular periods spent talking or writing about the past improved
the older people’s psychological state significantly. The
researchers attributed these psychological improvements to three
different factors:

  • Sharing memories is a good tool for encouraging and building
  • Telling stories is a good way for older people to emphasise
    their identity and remember contributions they made to others’
  • Passing on war stories to grandchildren is an important and
    neglected way of preserving family folklore.

The second key finding was that care staff are, like the rest of
us, discouraged from conversing or laughing with people in the
workplace. Although care staff were not the focus of the research,
the concerns that they expressed about the constrictions on their
time and the nature of their work became important.

A general feeling still lingers that talking and listening are not
recognised as “real work” in care organisations, but this research
makes a strong argument for the benefits of what is often seen as
just “chatting”. This aspect of care is not one that is always
given priority. One resident, asked how often she was engaged in
conversation with staff, replied: “Well, normally when I have my
bath, because they are so busy. They can’t be talking to you all
the time, can they?” Organisations must consider allocating time
for this type of care, say the researchers.

The researchers found that they could divide the volunteers into
two groups – those who spent time thinking about regrets and
resolving issues, and those who looked back with pleasure and
enjoyed happy memories. Although both groups enjoyed and benefited
from the activities, it is clearly important to tailor any
reminiscence activity to individual needs. “Activities should form
part of an individualised programme of care,” says McKee. “And
promoting the use of ‘just talking’ as a legitimate form of social
care may encourage carers to harness potential benefits of everyday
interactions relating to both past and present.”

The researchers are keen that their findings are widely distributed
to the care community, and are in discussions with organisations
such as Community Health Sheffield, about staff training and forums
for care workers. They hope to begin focusing on the role of care
staff in reminiscence activity, and evaluate packages for staff
training that take account of their findings. 

Anna Hinds works in external relations at the Economic and
Social Research Council.


1 A full report of the research, Evaluating the
Impact of Reminiscence on the Quality of Life of Older People
from the ESRC on 01793 413122. Further information can be obtained
from Marg Walker on 0114 222 6467 or see


More from Community Care

Comments are closed.