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Shaping Our Age – Involving Older People in Improving Their Wellbeing
This paper describes how we are undertaking the Shaping Our Age research project. Shaping Our Age is an innovative, collaborative project led by WRVS in partnership with the Centre for Citizen Participation, Brunel University, and the Centre for Social Action De Montfort University. It is funded by the Big Lottery for three years from 2010 to 2013, and in just coming to the end of its first year.

Understanding of well-being

Shaping Our Age is a research and development project informed by a value position that recognises that people’s well-being should be based on a human rights rather than a ‘deficit’ model (Beresford et al., 2011) and informed by the social model of disability and the philosophy of independent living (Barnes and Mercer, 1997). A ‘deficit’ or medical model assumes ill-functioning, illness, pain, impairment and disability, including social and economic disability (Oliver, 1990). A human rights approach requires a different range of support to enable older people to continue their active participation towards building stronger communities, rather than simply providing a safety net to protect them from harm and abuse (Beresford et al., 2011). An ageing society, increasing support needs, limited funding and age equality and human rights issues underline the need to find innovative ways of enabling older people to improve their well-being – Shaping Our Age is a creative response to this, moving beyond the current focus on informal carers, towards enabling proper resources for mutual support.

The three organisations involved in the project share an understanding that subjective well-being is a multifaceted, combination of different factors. These include people’s experiences of their positive and negative emotions, satisfaction, vitality, resilience, self-esteem and sense of purpose and meaning. Social well-being is a dynamic process that gives people a sense of how their lives are going, through the interaction between their circumstances, activities and psychological resources or ‘mental capital’ (Michaelson et al., 2009). This view has important implications for the way in which it is measured, requiring indicators which are a combination of objective and subjective factors.

Our approach for the research

Shaping Our Age is concerned with equalising the power relationship between researchers and participants and undertaking research committed to supporting the empowerment of older people and broader social change in line with the achievement of their rights and needs (Barnes and Mercer, 1997). The project starts from the ideas and understanding of the people involved – those who are experiencing the issue. It involves a realisation that research is a process of learning, development and change and the researcher is the facilitator of that process. Our value position leads us to take a specific methodological approach to the research, which is informed by social action research Fleming (Fleming and Ward, 2004) and emancipatory disability research Beresford (Beresford, 2002) and will actively and directly involve older people throughout the research process.

Emancipatory disability research, developed by the disabled people’s movement, grew out of the sense that mainstream research was damaging and disempowering to disabled people. Informed by the values of the social model of disability and the philosophy of independent living (Beresford, 2003), it is committed to undertaking research that empowers disabled people and works for broader social change in line with the achievement of their rights and needs. Social action research starts from the ideas and understanding of the people involved – those who are experiencing the issue. It involves a realisation that research is a process of learning, development and change and the researcher is the facilitator of that process. Social action researchers set in motion processes of participation to shape agendas, make decisions and affect outcomes; they aim to have non-hierarchical relationship with participants, recognising everybody has an equal but different contribution to make to the research process. Data analysis and dissemination are undertaken jointly, and there is a responsibility not to leave the participants unsupported at the end of the process. The approach involves moving from understanding and knowledge into action (Fleming and Ward, 2004) and employs a range of methods consistent with these participatory and egalitarian philosophies.


This is a participative research project and the participation of older people is built in to all stages of the project. Older people are involved in:
  • staff recruitment
  • setting the parameters of the research
  • selecting the local projects
  • designing the research
  • developing the local projects
  • information collection
  • analysis of findings
  • evaluating findings amongst their peers and within their wider communities
  •  reporting, communicating and disseminating
  • developing follow-up action.
Older people are involved as members of the Older People’s Reference Group (OPRG) which is a diverse group of around 15 older people from the four countries of the UK, set up to gain the experience, thoughts and insights of older people with an interest in the work we are doing, that relate to the project. It is shaping the thinking behind all phases of the project and all contributions offered by the group towards the project are given high value. So far the group have met twice and had a key role in interpreting the data from phase 1 of the research. The OPRG will continue to meet throughout the project and be actively involved in all its stages.

Importantly, within each local project (see below), older people will also actively contribute to the project both in delivering services as volunteers, as beneficiaries of the services and in their evaluation.

Aims of the research

The research aims to explore the question of, how can older people be more actively involved in improving their well-being? Such a focus raises a number of subsidiary questions:
  • How do older people understand their well-being?
  • What do they see as most effectively maximising it?
  • What do they see as key barriers in the way of it?
  • How might these be overcome?
  • How can we be inclusive of groups with diverse needs?
  • What part can older people play supporting one another’s well-being - individually and collectively?
The project seeks to support and enable older people to define a meaningful range of well-being indicators; and identify innovative participative activities promoting older people’s well-being at individual and collective levels, in relation to these indicators. This will then be used to inform the development of innovative approaches within five existing WRVS projects. The learning and evidence from this work will be integrated into all WRVS services and hence influence the wider culture and practice of older people’s services. The ultimate aim is to put well-being, as defined by older people, at the centre of their work, and that of a wider range of providers, commissioners and policy makers.

Phases of Shaping Our Age

The project falls into 4 overlapping phases:

I. Consultation and development of the well-being indicators
II. Selection of 5 local pilot sites
III. Local activity to enhance wellbeing
IV. Dissemination and action

Phase One – development of well-being indicators

We are already well on the way to completing this phase, which started with a comprehensive review of literature around well-being and older people. The main activity of this phase has been a wide consultation with older people with diverse life experiences – we consulted with people both in individual interviews and focus group discussions. We spoke with more 160 older people who had diverse lived experiences. They ranged in age from early 60’s to late 90’s, and about a third of them were men and 2/3 women, also just under a third told us their day-to-day activities were limited because of a health problem or impairment. Whilst the majority said they were white British and of the Christian faith, about a quarter were from different ethnic groups and faiths. They lived alone, with partners, other family members, in their own homes, sheltered accommodation and in care homes.

We gained a large amount of high quality information, giving us real insights into how older people view well-being and what they think contributes to enhancing it. This has been analysed thematically and the initial analysis discussed and reviewed with the Older People’s Reference Group (ORPG). This added greatly to our understanding of the meaning and the significance of what we had been told. The final step in this phase is to develop some indicators of well-being which will be used as the basis for developing the activities in local projects in phase 3.

This first phase will shortly conclude with the development of criteria to inform the selection of five local WVRS projects where the researcher will work with local people to develop activities to support and enhance older people’s well-being.

Phase II - Selection of 5 WRVS projects

The idea is to work with 5 local WRVS services to develop projects or activities with older people that will enhance well-being. Exactly how this will be done has yet to be decided, but the recent OPRG meeting has given some useful guidance that will help inform this process. It is likely to consider such factors as ways of maximising well-being, building on links between groups within communities, mutuality and peer to peer support.
It is intended that the local pilot projects will build on links between service users and volunteers, and between the project and other local older people’s groups, and other community groups not specifically for older people with the possibility of enhancing inter-generational activities and community cohesion.

Phase III - Local activities in the 5 local sites

This phase is where groups of older people within WRVS local projects will consider and decide upon ways of maximising their well-being and that of other older people - service users or volunteers. They will be supported by local workers and the research project worker to develop actions, services or interventions to promote well-being. We are seeking to develop ways in which older people can help each other, both individually and collectively. The nature and mutual benefits, of this peer-to-peer support will be explored. The plan is for the whole team to learn from them, identify any barriers encountered, and begin to find ways to improve and overcome them.

We will develop capacity-building programmes within each local project for the older people to develop skills and knowledge they need to take part fully in the project and the research.

Phase IV dissemination and action

A key element of the project is to set in motion change management processes within WRVS to respond strategically to the findings of the research. We hope that it will result in innovative activities or interventions which will be of practical and immediate use to WRVS and help transform the effectiveness of its services in meeting older people’s needs. WRVS intends to use the findings of this research to become more responsive and effective in providing integrated services that meet the changing needs of the older population, and in lobbying and influencing key decision-makers.

The outcomes and a synthesis of the work and learning from all five sites will be brought together to develop common principles for practice in enhancing the well-being of older people that can be considered across the whole of the WRVS as well as the wider older people’s sector.


This exciting project is coming to the end of its first phase, and we look forward to building on this and developing into the next stages. We have much to learn from this project both in terms of the methodology and what we discover about how older people can be involved in enhancing their own and others wellbeing.


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Beresford P., Fleming J., Glynn M., Bewley C., Croft S., Branfield F. and Postle K. (2011) Supporting People: Towards Person-Centred Support. Bristol: Policy Press.
Beresford P. (2003) It’s Our Lives: A Short Theory of Knowledge, Distance and Experience. London: Citizen Press in association with Shaping Our Lives.
Beresford P. (2002) ‘User involvement in research and evaluation: liberation or
regulation?’, Social Policy and Society, 1: 2, 95-105.
Fleming J. and Ward D. (2004) Methodology and practical application of the social action research model. In Maggs-Rapport F. (ed.) New Research Methodologies in Health and Social Care: Putting Ideas into Practice. London: Routledge.
Michaelson J., Abdallah S., Steuer N., Thompson S. and Marks N. (2009) National Accounts of Well-being: Bringing Real Wealth onto the Balance Sheet. London: New Economics Foundation.
Oliver M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Shaping Our Lives (no date) Definitions of ‘Service User’ and ‘User-Controlled’ (online). Available from: http://www .shapingourlives.org.uk/definitions.html [accessed 14 June 2011]

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