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Older People’s Forums – calling for recognition by researchers

Older people’s forums hold huge potential for researchers in a number of ways.  With the government’s increasing expectation that older people should be involved in research about them, researchers will find it worth their while to explore opportunities for engagement with local forums.

There are over 1,000 older people’s forums across the UK whose aim is to give older people a voice on things that are important to them.  Most of these forums have hundreds - if not thousands of members – all older people.

These forums are generally independently run by older people for older people.  They have a constitution, bank account and are run on democratic lines.  They set their own agendas and are not party-political.  As grass-roots, self-help organisations, each one is unique, but they organise common activities which are social, campaigning and consulting.  They are well informed about local needs, local services, and government policy both national and local.

Twelve years ago Help the Aged recognised the potential of forums to influence local services and with this in mind, they began a programme to support the setting-up and development of forums, ‘Speaking Up for Our Age’, which still continues and develops under the new Age UK banner.  With the implementation of the statutory ‘Duty to Involve’ local authorities have been setting up forums in gap areas so there are now only a few counties where forums do not exist.

In 1993 Help the Aged ran a pilot project through which five forums were trained to undertake research.  Several excellent research reports were produced as a result, highlighting the needs of, and issues facing, local older people.  Help the Aged was unable to continue the project but these and other forums continue to undertake research.  The training was cascaded at a residential research seminar for forums interested in doing research. This was sponsored by Help the Aged.

One of the piloting forums, Eastleigh Southern Parishes Older People’s Forum (ESPOPF), has just launched its 5th research report In the Dark.  This is a study of the information needs of older people in the Borough. Their previous projects have looked at hospital transport, travel concessions, housing needs and repeat prescribing.  More information about these reports can be read on their website: http://www.espopf.org.

The standard of the research reports produced by ESPOPF researchers is extremely high.  The methodology and key questions have clearly been carefully thought through and the reports are beautifully set out.  With the large membership of the forum, a high response rate to the researchers’ questionnaires is guaranteed, enabling robust conclusions and recommendations to be drawn.

A number of other forums undertake research into local issues, recognising that if they want to influence local decision-makers, they need to provide evidence.  Many forums would like to undertake more research but may lack the capacity and would welcome support and guidance.  Clearly there is potential here for partnership working with a local university to explore what each side may be able to offer in a joint research project.  Indeed some universities are already working with forums in their areas.

Before approaching forums to discuss ways of working together, universities should consider the development of a policy for engagement with the forum.  Most forums operate on a shoe-string budget, so travel expenses and other expenditure incurred would need to be reimbursed.  Forums are run by volunteers, but if their expertise is being sought, consideration should be given to the appropriateness of providing reimbursement.  A vital aspect of involving the forum is to ensure that it is involved from the start, so that the research is rooted in the experience of older people.  Forums could provide focus groups, for instance. Feedback at the end is also vitally important.

Most forums are in regular contact with their local authority and NHS commissioners. Forums often have a seat on the local older people’s planning group which feeds into the Local Strategic Partnership.  In many areas the forums are well supported by the local authority and they have an excellent relationship. These local authorities recognise the value of involving older people and listening to their views and ideas.  In these areas forums feel they are making a difference.

Two examples of this are Dorset and East Sussex. In these counties not only are the local District or town-based forums supported, but there is a county-wide association through which all the Districts can be represented in county-wide decision-making. 

Forums in the South West and South East have come together to create regional networks of forums, which meet to share good practice and successes, and identify issues for raising at regional or national level.

Although forums generally feel they are making a difference in some ways, there are still a huge number of issues on which forums feel they are not making headway.  There is a feeling that more evidence would give their campaigning greater clout.  There is an opportunity here to marry up the experience of forum members with the evidence that researchers are producing.

There is clearly huge scope for forums to assist in the dissemination of research findings.  This would not only help researchers to get their work publicised, but the evidence from research gives the forum their much needed ammunition for influencing the local authority or NHS service provider.

I have tried to set out above, the ways in which forums and researchers could and should be working together for greater impact on local service delivery.  These proposals are, broadly, the role of forums as research leaders or partners; the value of the research that forums have undertaken which needs to be recognised and promoted more widely; the potential for involving forum members in research and the opportunity for disseminating research findings through forums.

In all these areas, forums are keen to be involved and it would seem to offer a win-win situation for both forums and research bodies.

Through its Engagement Team, Age UK maintains close links with and supports older people’s forums in a number of ways, and they in turn support Age UK in its national campaigns.

For more information about forums and engaging with them, contact:

Debbie Beale
Civic Engagement Officer
Age UK
207 – 221 Pentonville Road
London N1 9UZ

Telephone: 01258 458406

Email: Debbie.beale@ageuk.org.uk
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