Building links with seldom-heard and seldom-asked older communities

Reference # SLEF2110\15
Date 2022-2025
Funding £390,032
Project lead Professor Mark Hawley
Organisation University of Sheffield and Johnnie Johnson Housing

Published May 2024


Mark Hawley, Director of the Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH) at the University of Sheffield, is developing a “living lab” where older people can actively participate in testing and developing new assistive technologies in real-world settings. To ensure his project has a representative and inclusive cohort, he has partnered with Astraline and Johnnie Johnson Housing to connect with “seldom-heard” communities. Read on to learn how you can do the same.

Headshot of Mark Hawley in a light blue shirt and black blazer.

It was very important to us when developing this project to include as many different communities as possible

Prof. Mark Hawley

Older people want to live independently for as long as possible. Technology-enabled care (such as mobile alert pendants, or GPS-enabled smart watches) has great promise for supporting care services and helping older people stay independent – but it doesn’t always live up to its full potential.

This is because the people designing, developing, and manufacturing these technologies can struggle to fully take account of the needs and aspirations of older people. To help bridge the gap between the developers of these technologies and the older people who will use them, we are creating a “living lab”.

What is a living lab?

A living lab allows end-users to actively participate in the testing and development of new products in real-world settings rather than in a university or company lab. For our project, we are creating living labs so older people can have a stake in the development of technology-enabled care.

It was very important to us when developing this project to include as many different communities as possible. We wanted to make sure we had an inclusive, representative cohort so that the diverse voices of older people were heard. 

To do so, we reached out to our partners Astraline and Johnnie Johnson Housing to help us find people with links into these communities. Astraline is a national specialist provider of technology-enabled care services to people in their homes, and Johnnie Johnson Housing is a specialist independent living housing provider. They connected us with Abdul Ravat, a former Johnnie Johnson Housing Board Member and chair of the National Housing Federation’s (NHF) older person’s housing group.

Abdul has the experience, skills and connections to help us win the confidence and trust of different communities of people and helped us develop our thinking and gain valuable insights for our Living Lab. It is really important to create an environment where participants feel comfortable and able to freely express their opinions and concerns about the technology.

I’d like to see more researchers consider living labs as a way to make their projects more inclusive and representative

Abdul Ravat, National Housing Federation
Seldom heard or seldom asked?

In designing our focus group and workshop sessions, Abdul recommended meeting communities where they are – so we chose local spaces like mosques or community centres, and scheduled times that worked for everyone. Some sessions even had communal meals or were organised around social events to make them more friendly. We also organised sessions to take into account social norms, such as hosting a women-only group. This all helped break down social barriers and ease anxieties so people could openly communicate their thoughts on technology and community services.  

Organising and running these sessions was outside my skillset and the university lacked the necessary connections and resources. Sometimes, the focus groups were carried out in three different languages at the same time! That is why Abdul and our partners’ experience was so useful and vital to this project.

Living labs are a great way for researchers to build long-lasting relationships with older people

Prof. Mark Hawley

Older people, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, are often considered a seldom-heard community because their voices aren’t always included in research and debates around key social questions. But the reason they are seldom-heard is because they are seldom-asked. Across academia, statutory organisations and mainstream service providers, not enough effort is made to actively reach out to these communities and include them in their research and consultations.

Building new and lasting connections

One way to build better links is to establish partnerships with people like Abdul, community leaders and influencers who have connections and credibility within the communities you’d like to reach. A good first step is to identify individuals who are respected within these communities and can serve as bridges between you and community members. 

It’s also important to plan how you’re going to maintain the connections you make so that they last longer than the life of your project. You need to follow-up with and keep the people you have worked with informed of the progress that has been made. In this way, they can see the impact of their contributions, which in turn helps you earn their confidence and trust.

And, of course, all of this work takes time and effort, so it’s important that these activities are resourced appropriately if they are going to be done in a meaningful way. Focus groups, community-based workshops and living labs are great ways for researchers to build long-lasting relationships with older people. In the future, I hope to see diverse older people no longer categorised as seldom-heard but instead seen for what they are: valued partners in research.

If you’re looking to engage with older communities but are not sure where to start or need a partner, the Dunhill Medical Trust can help you. We can put you in touch with possible partner organisations or community-facing organisations who might be just the right fit for your project. Get in touch to find out more.

Find out more

Visit the Technology-Enabled Living Lab for Ageing Better (TELLAB) website to read more about the project.