Seeing a social worker is not an everyday occurrence for most older people whose everyday lives often remain hidden from view. How can research look at what is ordinary life, and why should routines rather than particular problems be of interest to social workers?
A short accessible report on a seminar series held jointly by the Open University and the Centre for Policy on Ageing provides accounts of four projects.1 These suggest ways in which older people can tell others about everyday routines and experiences. Johnson and Bytheway, for example, report on research in which older people kept diaries or logs about their use of medication. These show that for some older people living at home, the use of medication is complex. They have a lot of control superficially but also have to manage complicated routines and judge how to manage symptoms. While such lives may seem routine there seemed to be highly personal ways of managing the difficulties imposed by ill-health and other challenges.
Diaries of a different form are reported by Dickinson in her study of everyday eating habits. This revealed or rather confirmed the importance of structure of meals to many older people. They preferred meals of a type they were used to – meat and two veg – and valued Sunday lunch as different. However, rules or cultural habits about food were not always rigid. Among older people in their sixties particularly, new foods are being eaten and living alone can affect what a person decides to eat and when. Dickinson predicts older people will choose to eat a greater variety.
Both the medicine and food studies took place over a short period of time. But other research makes use of people’s willingness to take part in regularly in studies or to do so over many years. The Mass Observation research, started in the 1930s, includes many older people who complete diaries about everyday life or in response to particular themes. Here there is much to learn about more intimate matters or personal reflections and subjects which other research methods may miss.
The idea that any research method does not always provide the whole picture, and never can, is set out by Askham in the fourth study which looks at what people say in surveys and what they say in interviews. She puts constraints on the ways in which surveys concentrate on what people can or cannot do, for example in activities of daily living, with the more complex way in which people manage everyday activities. Sometimes they can do things, although much depends on the context and also on how people see “help”.
All these studies have something to say to practitioners. This is particularly so at a time when single assessment procedures are coming in to day-to-day practice. First, a tick box approach can miss valuable context. There are often no straight “yes” or “no” replies. Second, older people are not a homogeneous group – there is great variety between them and this affects what they value and why. Third, everyday life is worth exploring with people to find out more about them as individuals. Any care plan would seem more likely to succeed if it wraps around everyday life rather than disrupting it.
1B Bytheway, (ed), Everyday Living in Later Life, Centre for Policy on Ageing, 2003. It is available from the CPA, 19-23 Ironmonger Row, London, EC1V 3QP, £10.
Jill Manthorpe is reader in community care at the University of Hull.