Channel 4 recently showed an uplifting TV programme about older people that was acclaimed to be “full of hope & common humanity across generations” (Richard Humphries, The King's Fund). They reported a research study where, for six weeks, four-year olds shared a new nursery with 11 pensioners within a retirement village at St Monica Trust, Bristol. This inter-generational experiment replicated an earlier study set in the United States and demonstrated positive impact on the health and happiness of the participating older people; by measuring their mood, memory and mobility. 

It made wonderful and persuasive viewing to see the older people interact and play with the children and contrasted sharply with the usual TV documentaries, where a journalist goes undercover to expose evidence of cruelty and neglect in care homes. Viewers were asked to contemplate whether this ambitious experiment might transform the way Britain cares for its increasingly older population? Pleased though I was to see care homes being profiled in a surprising and appreciative way, I was left asking myself why we needed research to tell us something so obvious.

This was quickly followed by the Daily Mail inviting My Home Life to comment on a research study on apathy in care homes. This Dutch study found that half of the nursing home residents were suffering from apathy and demonstrated that it was associated with increased risk of dying. This led to the journalist questioning why older people ‘give up on life’ in care homes and suggested that this was because homes do not provide engaging activities. Whilst this may (or may not) be the case, apathy is also a symptom of dementia and can result from a person shutting down at end of life. Again, this led to me questioning how helpful the research had been. I have to confess to finding the highly technical journal article extremely difficult to comprehend. It’s not surprising that its core message may have been lost or misinterpreted, especially by a journalist quick to blame. 

What strikes me is that society may have lost its way with the politics and dominant paradigms of research. Too often focusing on measurement, rather than meaning. If we can’t promote community engagement (including intergenerational projects) without research having to prove its worth and if we can’t share our findings in a helpful way that acknowledges complexity rather than trying to reduce it to simple measurable factors, then what is the point? Surely common sense tells us that offering meaningful activities to older people in care homes is a good thing.

Maybe doing care differently is also about doing research differently.

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