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Authors: Hayley James and Tine Buffel

Image shows a diverse group of older people walking down an urban street.
Image taken directly from the Centre for Ageing Better’s Age Positive Image library under the CC0 licence to Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0

With increased diversity and inequality in ageing populations globally, it is essential to involve older people as active citizens in the processes of knowledge creation and change which impact their lives and the communities they live in. Interest in co-research, defined as doing research ‘with’ or ‘by’ older adults rather than ‘to’, ‘about’ or ‘for’ them, with older adults has grown in the past twenty years. This reflects a broader turn towards involving communities in the process of knowledge production, but also specifically challenges the dominant discourse which tends to construct ageing as an individualised ‘problem’. As such, co-research methods tend to recognise the importance of diversity with a commitment to valuing older people’s perspectives and lived experiences, together with a critical exploration of the structural factors that lead to exclusion, oppression, and marginalisation in later life.

Despite this potential, research has found that the most common forms of engagement are skewed towards a ‘tokenistic approach’ in which older people have little influence over the research process, a tendency reinforced by the time-consuming and under-funded nature of this type of work. Moreover, there is increasing recognition of the challenges faced in involving more vulnerable groups within the older population, challenges which can exacerbate power differentials within and between groups.

Against this background, we conducted a systematic review of published work using co-research methods with older people to critically evaluate the state of the art, identifying the ways in which co-research can be practically realised, and the major challenges encountered by co-research projects. We found that the value of co-research is threefold: first, it can play a vital role in challenging negative stereotypes of ageing by emphasising and developing the skills and knowledge which older people can bring to research. Second, it provides opportunities for partnerships between older people, service providers and community stakeholders working together to stimulate change in policy, services and practice to improve quality of life in later life. Third, it provides a method for challenging traditional power arrangements and ensuring voice and visibility of marginalised groups, with the potential of empowering older people to speak out against discrimination and oppression, and for change in systems.

We also found challenges linked to the co-research approach, notably those associated with managing conflicting expectations and responsibilities; barriers to achieving sustainability; and the challenge of developing collaborative partnerships and negotiating power relationships between the different groups involved. In terms of the latter, there is a risk that projects which recruit and train older people to become co-researchers further empower those who already have considerable social capital while adding to the exclusion of more marginalised groups. This raises the concern that co-research exacerbates divides between already privileged groups of older people and their more disadvantaged peers. Without recognition of such tensions, co-research may reinforce rather than reduce existing inequalities between groups.

We offer four pathways for improving and expanding the use of co-research methods with older people:

Developing diversified structures of involvement

Co-research needs to accommodate the lived experiences of older people by understanding older adults’ motivations for, and expectations from, being involved as co-researchers to offer potential roles and responsibilities which suit their needs. Co-research projects should offer a range of flexibly adaptable roles and responsibilities, to reflect the various, and potentially changing ways that older people may want to be involved over the course of a project. The diversification of co-researcher roles must include considering the needs of less privileged groups and developing structures which accommodate and reflect the diversity of ageing experiences in relation to gender, ethnicity, class and sexuality. It should also recognize that the needs of co-researchers may change during the project, and that this requires potential routes to increase, lessen or stop their involvement at different stages of the project.

Supporting co-researchers

The studies included in this review underline the value of, and need for, training and supporting older adults in their role as co-researchers, both in terms of improving data collection and analysis as well as developing participant’s skills, confidence and self-esteem. This involves being attentive to the different contributions that co-researchers feel comfortable with making, as well as to the practical support that is necessary to enable co-learning and co-research. Co-researchers benefit significantly from personalized forms of support and mentoring, for example, the creation of spaces which enhance peer-to-peer support and learning, where co-researchers can reflect upon and share their feelings with other co-researchers as well as the academic researchers. Involving older people as co-researchers, then, is not just a matter of including them in a set of research activities, it also shapes the very nature of the relationships developed during the process.

Embedding principles for improving the rigour of co-research

Co-research methods can gain traction by embedding principles which improve the rigour of participatory methodologies. First, there is a need for more methodological reflexivity, especially regarding the issue of who the co-researchers are and how they may have shaped the research. Projects should aim to foster reflection and discussion about the implications of the co-researchers’ positionality, and their ways of knowing and constructing meaning, for the research process. Second, the validity of co-research could be improved with more clarity on the appropriateness and accuracy of the research methodology, for example, fully describing how co-researchers were involved in different phases of the research. Further, including the co-researchers’ own perspective would not only improve the quality of the study itself but also contribute to the need for sharing good practice.

Co-ownership of change

Co-research can most powerfully contribute to achieving change where co-researchers were able to co-create and take ownership of it. Involving co-researchers from the start of the project will contribute to a shared understanding of what the research aims to achieve. At the other side of the project, involving co-researchers in evaluating the impact of the participatory approach, both in terms of their own experience as well as the project outcomes, will generate directions for future co-research projects and contribute to shaping the research agenda. Co-researchers often continue to advocate for change after projects officially end: supporting initiatives instigated by the co-researchers may further promote a sense of co-ownership.

Hayley James is a Postdoctoral Researcher at University College Dublin, and Tine Buffel is a Senior Lecturer at the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research in Ageing (MICRA) at the University of Manchester.

For further details about this research, please see the article in Ageing and Society:

James, H., & Buffel, T. (2022). Co-research with older people: A systematic literature review. Ageing and Society, 1-27. doi:10.1017/S0144686X21002014