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24/04/2014

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Senior engagement

Monique Tsang finds that, in health dialogue, the elderly are often forgotten

Last spring, thirty regulars from a London senior centre met design students to craft flowers from colourful textile yarns.  As they worked, conversations flowed about life before the NHS: childbirth, nutrition and mental health, amongst other things. The students listened and asked questions.

Amy Sanders, a public engagement specialist at the Wellcome Trust, organised Threads and Yarns with the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to help medical historians learn about changes in public health in England.  Sanders says that public engagement ‘tends to target younger people, as they would be the scientists of the future.’  In contrast, public engagement events for the elderly are few and far between.

This runs against today's demographic trends. The elderly fall in the fastest growing age group.  The UK now has more people above the age of 60 than people below 18, according to Age UK.  Many older people have health concerns and mobility challenges, and may have fewer opportunities for social interaction.  They may benefit from public engagement in the area of health. 

Practice with pills

Active Pharmacy is one example.  Every month or so, pharmacy students from the University of Brighton visit a sheltered home for older people with their course lecturer.  Students listen to the residents' medication concerns and, after checking with their lecturer, advise each resident. 

Mike Ellis-Martin, the pharmacy lecturer, started Active Pharmacy to help students gain practical skills while addressing the limited consultation time that seniors have with their GPs.  ‘Students would learn from the people using medications what it is like to have to take a medication every day, while medication users would be able to ask some of the straightforward questions that there never seems to be an opportunity to ask in the usual places,’ he says.

The impacts are also social and intergenerational.  The seniors in sheltered homes ‘live relatively insular lives.  They do not, in the main, mix with the student generation,’ he says.  Many seniors also believe that students tend to behave badly, so some older people are initially wary of them.  ‘Meeting with students who are polite, caring and knowledgeable is for many [seniors] an eye-opening experience.’  At the same time, many seniors see themselves as teachers using their personal knowledge to help students to learn, he adds. 

Janice Bradbury, scheme manager at one of the sheltered homes, says that the students' personal attention to the residents is significant.  ‘The fact that someone is sitting there, spending time, and talking to them, and interested in what they're saying … That meant quite a lot to people,’ she says.

Engagement or what?

While public engagement activities for senior citizens are relatively rare, Amy Sanders says ‘it's not that we've forgotten about older people.’  She explains that health charities and the NHS do involve older people in patient groups and community consultations.  Older people also tend to volunteer more than other age groups, including in museums and activities to do with science, nature, and health. 

Perhaps this calls for a rethink of the activities that should be brought into the fold of ‘public engagement with science’.  When Mike Ellis-Martin was putting together Active Pharmacy, he never thought of it as a public engagement project.  ‘It was very much as a socialising experience for students who get very little patient contact,’ he says.  He gives an analogy: ‘When I buy a shirt I don’t look at the substance of the cotton threads that make it up, but I look at the style and colour.  Similarly with pharmacy, I need to know some principles of science that underpin my knowledge, but it is use of that knowledge in practice that matters.’

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Monique Tsang
Monique Tsang is a graduate of the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London
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