The University of Liverpool recently hosted the 48th Annual Conference of the British Society of Gerontology (BSG), and this year we did something a little different – we organised the first ever Community Sessions to showcase the incredible work done by local communities in supporting older people. Having been responsible for the Community Sessions and seeing their success, I thought I would go through a little about what the Community Sessions (CS) are, how they came about, and how they worked out in the end, should you be interested in doing the same (which I think you should be).

A little about me: I was on the Organising and Scientific Committee for BSG 2019 – I’m a Research Associate at the University of Liverpool, with an interest in ageing research and psychology, particularly in care homes. My PhD at the University of Manchester explored the impact of life in a care home on older people’s sense of identity (check it out here).

A little about the conference:  The BSG committee decided on the theme ‘Resilience and Living Well in Local Communities’. Research into ageing is a priority for the University of Liverpool, given the challenges of ageing populations currently being faced in the UK and elsewhere. We can certainly say that Liverpool is a resilient city, and so the theme felt quite appropriate (as stated by my illustrious colleague Dr Louise Roper during our interview about the conference on BBC Radio Merseyside – about 1 hour 6 minutes in).

Why we developed the Community Sessions

Given the focus on local communities in the conference theme, I proposed that we include organisations based in the local community in our programme, and the older people who benefit from them.

The Community Sessions were intended to offer inclusive, accessible, reciprocal opportunities for local organisations, older people, and researchers.   Local organisations had a platform for their valuable work, and to highlight the challenges and rewards of supporting older people the way they do, in the areas they do. Delegates also had a unique insight in to the experiences of the older people who benefit from such organisations. CS contributors and researchers alike should have the opportunity to learn about one another’s work, gain inspiration to inform their own practices, and to make connections for future projects.

The problem with access and accessibility

While there is a lot of ageing research that involves community groups and organisations, there remains a push to improve their access to research output, and to present this in more accessible ways. With the Community Sessions I tried to tackle the problem of access. There is an enormous body of amazing research that may never reach the eyes and ears of people who may benefit from it in some way. For instance, a care home manager recently contacted me to say that they happened upon my paper by chance, and it inspired them to rethink their own practices to support identities in care homes. Wonderful! But you of course can’t rely on chance (or log inspiration with REF). I hoped that by inviting our CS contributors to the conference, they may have access to ideas and networks that might have otherwise been inaccessible. They were not asked to pay a registration fee, we tried to be as accommodating as possible if multiple guests or presenters were requested (you can’t hold an intergenerational Skills Café workshop with just one person!), and offered to reimburse travel expenses. This of course does not address the issue of accessibility. Future iterations of the Community Sessions could work to make the conference content more accessible – perhaps by including lay summaries of accepted abstracts in conference programmes…

Conferences are an academic playground. We come together, we chat shop, we network. It would be challenging to fundamentally change the structure of conferences to increase access and accessibility. There are other ways to disseminate output for a more lay audience. Nonetheless, we can still do more to ensure our output reaches those for whom it is relevant, and inviting organisations via the Community Sessions was one way to do that.

How they were received: Theory in action

The committee were very positive about the Community Sessions, and I received great responses from others when the concept was announced via BSG email and on social media. But it was difficult to determine whether we had sufficient buy-in to move from “likes” on Twitter, to bums on seats. After the sessions had finished, a colleague expressed their initial scepticism over the Community Sessions – what was the point, is it a gimmick, who is this for, etc. But they were won over by theory.

Each of the CS contributors offered something different to the programme, but one constant was the presence theory. Person-centred care, individual and social identities, differing approaches to reminiscence, culturally significant implications of ageing… You could see and hear the theory in their presentations or performances, how they interconnected, and their practical and contextual considerations.

Let’s look at LFC Red Neighbours and Everton in the Community – two community programmes owned and managed by football clubs, that, on the surface, appear to be virtually identical in terms of their aims, structures, locations, and target populations. Though you don’t need to support the particular Club to engage in the services they offer, having a Club-based framework presents interesting implications for sense of community or identity for their service users. Furthermore, their subtle differences in funding sources, coverage of specific postcodes, wider community involvement, and more, results in two distinct cases within which to explore programme design and implementation at the local level.

Where to start?

Now, I’ve been working in Liverpool for nearly three years, but I’m a little out-of-the-loop with ageing research, as my current role focuses on a different area. So knowing who to contact was my first hurdle. A couple of fellow committee members introduced me to their connections, who introduced me to a couple more, and my good friend Google helped me to identify many more potential contributors.

Given all the variation in our scientific arm of the BSG, it was also important to have a varied programme for the CSs, both in terms of what local organisations and groups addressed but also how. Here are a few variables I considered when approaching different organisations:

  • Were they dementia focussed or not dementia focussed? Ageing research is not just dementia, so a mixture of target groups was preferable
  • Did they represent a marginalised community or particular group of older people? E.g. LGBT+, ethnic minority groups, young onset dementia…
  • Did they have an interesting link to the community? E.g. via local football clubs, religious organisations, or museums…
  • Were they doing something particularly unique or interesting? E.g. Art projects involving older people or focussing on ageing; intergenerational programmes in schools…
  • Were they a local arm of a national organisation or an independent programme?
  • Did they do one thing / offer one specific programme, or have a larger body of choice?

The final programme had a good mixture of all these considerations, but if I were to do it again, I’d have focussed more on inviting representatives from marginalised and ethnic minority groups. After groups either declined or did not respond, my Google well ran dry and it was difficult to find other active organisations with the time, resources, and connections available to me. Enhancing diversity is certainly something we can work on in most areas of academia.

Things to consider when organising a Community Session

  1. What works for them – It was important to facilitate sessions that our contributors felt comfortable with, and which worked best for the type of programme or service they were representing – whether a presentation, workshop, or performance.
  • Offer support – Many of the people and groups I contacted had no connections to Universities and had not presented at conferences before. Some jumped at the opportunity, and others were initially hesitant. The notion of speaking publicly in an unfamiliar environment, to a room full of academics (or an empty room because of disinterested academics!) was pretty daunting for some, who felt that they had did not have much interesting to say, or were worried about the types of questions delegates would ask. With a little gentle perseverance and reassuring phone calls, we were able to discuss how to make the Community Sessions work best for everyone. I offered to look over draft presentations, help out with PowerPoint queries, and facilitate specific resources they needed to make the most out of their session. Other contributors had plenty of experience presenting in front of large groups and at conferences, so needed less involvement from me. Despite any anxieties some had, I was buoyed by everyone’s enthusiasm and support for the Community Sessions.

I was also very keen to invite older people who were involved in the organisations, to discuss their experience if they felt comfortable to do so, or to support other CS contributors on the day. This presented the additional consideration of support needs, and as a committee we were happily prepared to hire outside support. As it turned out, the CS contributors with additional support needs were suitably cared for by the others in their posse, and didn’t need anything from us.

  • Create a welcoming atmosphere – We designated “Chairs” to each session, albeit in an informal capacity. Friendly faces to help load up the PowerPoint, turn on the music, keep people to time, and to help navigate questions for those unaccustomed to the dance of conference discussions. I had intended for all CS contributors to meet with the Chairs during the lunch break, to make the process a little less daunting, and to give everyone the opportunity to meet, ask questions, and settle in. Due to the unexpected closure of one of our main venues, these plans were scuppered, but I was able to meet most presenters over tea and emergency conference-lunch pizza. It certainly made me feel better to finally put faces to names and emails.

Final reflections

The Community Sessions were a new opportunity for researchers and local organisations learn from one another, to improve access to research, and to generate ideas for future collaborations. Though there is certainly room for improvement, particularly in terms of diversity, access, and accessibility, feedback from CS contributors and delegates has been overwhelmingly positive. Regardless of the theme of the next BSG conference, there is a huge benefit of including members of the community and relevant organisations in the conference programme.

If you would like to learn more about the Community Sessions or access the resources we used, please do contact me on katie.paddock@liverpool.ac.uk or @KatiePaddockPhD