Research into practice

Seeking the views of hard-to-reach groups is an important task for social care and health services. It is also a challenge to researchers. In a special issue of Research Policy and Planning,1 some of the experiences of researchers are outlined, particularly when trying to hear from older people with dementia or older people from ethnic minority groups. The contributors reveal that the practicalities of research have much in common with social work tasks such as assessment, consultation and establishing helping relationships.

Marie Mills, for example, argues that counselling skills are highly relevant to gathering information. This can be used in groups for people with mild or moderate dementia. Mills suggests that storytelling within such a group setting can help people talk about their worries and concerns.

In talking to individuals, Lee Berney and David Blane discuss one method of collecting information about their past from older people. Their “life grid” method uses memorable external events such as the General Strike or Suez Crisis, to focus on what happened at the same time in a person’s family, their home and their occupation. They argue that this method improves people’s recall and it may be a way of helping to learn more of an individual’s biography. Such information can be very valuable when building a picture of a person, perhaps if their memory is failing. Giving people a “history” can help others see them as individuals and to treat them accordingly. Knowledge of a life history can also help in supporting people with unresolved mental health difficulties.

In a further article, Heather Wilkinson and Alison Bowes set out some of the difficulties of including people with dementia from south Asian backgrounds in research. From their experience of such research in Scotland, they argue that this does not require different methods but a commitment to being inclusive. They suggest that it is helpful to use existing methods more flexibly. Communication is crucial but also the extra time to find ways to communicate is important to take into account. This allows relationships to be built up, with both the family and individuals.

Other matters identified that are relevant to consultation and participation activities include the need to think about translation. In some Asian languages, for example, dementia is not easy to translate. For some people, talking about dementia may not have particular meaning because they have not been given the diagnosis, or have not understood it. For others, access is restricted by families who may be concerned about the purpose of research. Their anxiety also needs to be addressed by researchers and service providers seeking users’ and carers’ views.

Ailsa Cook’s paper covers the use of video in researching the experiences of people with dementia. Working in a residential home as a researcher, she found that many people enjoyed being videoed but that working out consent agreements proved challenging. Although consent is an essential matter for new research governance guidelines in health and social care, it is not an easy matter. Researchers’ experiences need to inform practice and vice-versa.

Participation agendas are challenging for researchers and practitioners alike. Some groups are particularly difficult to engage and their views are less known or respected. Innovative methods need to be tried and evaluated; practitioners should welcome experiments and contribute to their design and evaluation.

1 Research Policy and Planning 21(2), 2003, available online from the Social Care Institute for Excellence:

Jill Manthorpe is co-editor of Research Policy and Planning and reader in community care at the University of Hull.

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