Our journey to SWOP

Our Senior Researchers explain how they came to be involved in SWOP and share their passion for illuminating, impactful research.

Phoebe Beedell “When I saw the opportunity to study how frontline social workers help older people in difficult circumstances (for both parties!), I jumped at the chance. “

Like so many peoples’ careers, mine was a series of probable accidents rather than a deliberate plan. I started out as a graphic designer, but I couldn’t stomach the advertising industry, so I went into ‘public service communications’. For a while, I worked for the Bristol City Museums service. It was fabulously interesting, with eccentric experts who would show me boxes full of carefully categorized artefacts – beautiful beetles or oriental bottles, each according to their particular passions. On reflection, that experience underlined how we can use the evidence before us to tell stories that will help us understand the world.

But I was looking for travel and adventure, and spent the next ten years living and working in Zimbabwe and Lesotho on reproductive health and public information campaigns. I found myself seeking out the latest research on people’s behaviours and attitudes and my interest in sociology and public policy increased. Eventually, I returned to the UK, to look after my Dad and study for a Masters. Somehow, I managed to raise a child too! 

Later, I worked on community-based projects, doing participatory research (something I’d first encountered in Southern Africa) and public consultations, and got my first job in academia. I was employed to do psychosocial research with a variety of community workers about the day-to-day ethical dilemmas they faced and how they kept going. I loved talking to people and hearing their stories.

With a child to support, I took on bits of teaching and small-scale research in between another couple of big projects. One on middle class parents’ school choices and another looking at the experiences of working class and middle class university students. Later, colleagues encouraged me to do a PhD.  My first thoughts were ‘Who, me?’ but, with a bit of effort, I buried my imposter syndrome, applied myself, and after a few goes, managed to get a scholarship. My thesis was ‘A Psychosocial Study of Bangladeshi Development Workers’ examining the ethical dilemmas, contradictions and paradoxes faced by local aid workers and community activists in a country that, in one generation, has gone from famine to fast-fashion’s global garment-maker. Women’s lives are particularly affected and I argued that a feminist ‘ethic of care’ should guide international development assistance.

My interest in the space where abstract social policy meets messy reality led me to work with the wonderful Mo Ray at Lincoln University, on a project about Ethical Dilemmas in Self-Funded Care for Older People. Having looked after my own parents, there was personal interest as well as intellectual curiosity in the subject. We worked in collaboration with Denise and her team at Birmingham and with colleagues in Brighton, collectively overcoming the significant challenges of lockdown. I then spent some time in Scotland, where they do social care quite differently, but the South West of England was calling. When I saw the opportunity to study how frontline social workers help older people in difficult circumstances (for both parties!), I jumped at the chance. Fortunately, I landed safely and here I am!

Laura Noszlopy “I’m excited to “shadow” and learn from social workers as they champion older people’s wellbeing, often against the odds, over the coming months.”

I’ve been a social researcher, of one sort or another, throughout my adult life. If I think back, I was unselfconsciously using many of the skills and methods I use today even as a youngster. I think it’s a combination of natural curiosity about other people – their motivations, passions, concerns – and the ability to muddle quietly along with them. I have a strong urge to make sense of things and their place in the broader messiness of life. I love the process of research, and I feel privileged to have a job that offers me insights into others’ lives, sharing experiences and meeting people I would not otherwise meet, and – all being well – producing outputs that may improve the quality of those lives in some small way.

I feel this acutely in my current role with the SWOP project. Many of the people I am meeting – older people, their family members – are living through an especially stressful time as aging takes its toll on health, wellbeing, and agency. It’s often the case that people don’t understand how social care works, until they or a loved one need to draw on support, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes inevitably. I hadn’t previously realised the extent to which social workers need to explain the terrain, as well as the different funding systems and their limitations, alongside their role in assessment and provision of services. Although it’s early days, I am struck by the skill, stamina, and sensitivity of the social workers I’ve met. I look forward to learning more about how we care for each other, what motivates and sustains the choice to work in a caring profession, and the challenges faced by those who take this path, and about the difference these social workers can and do make in the lives of older people and their families. Despite working in a system that is chronically under-resourced, and often in situations fraught with sensitivities and obstacles, they navigate the legislation and the limitations of funding and capacity to sustain or improve the quality of people’s lives.

My route to this project has meandered across different academic disciplines and approaches – social anthropology, law, comparative religion, arts and literature – and geographical locations and subject foci – mostly Southeast Asia and Europe, studying social policy, cultural politics, arts and theatre, compassion and cruelty, environmentalism – but there is something universal about the fact of aging that features in all these areas. That said, my focus turned more sharply to UK social policy during the Covid-19 pandemic, when I was hired to work on a sociolegal research project at Birmingham Law School, examining the impact of emergency Care Act ‘easements’ on adult social care provision. This highlighted many of the fault lines and pressure points in the sector; it also introduced me to some amazing people and to the critical teamwork that kicks in to support older people when they need extra help. I’m excited to “shadow” and learn from social workers as they champion older people’s wellbeing, often against the odds, over the coming months.

What difference does a social worker make to an older person’s life?

Social Work with Older People Research – update September 2022

The longer we live, the more likely we will need a bit of help. We need to know that we will get the best possible support.

Every month, thousands of older people need social care to live their daily lives. The number of older people who would benefit from accessing social care is expected to keep increasing. Social workers support those who face the greatest health or personal struggles, including people who face barriers in speaking up for what they need and families that are overwhelmed.

The Social Work with Older People research project is exploring exactly how social workers enable people to have the best life possible: what they do; how they know what to advise; and how older people and their loved ones feel about what happens.

From Centre for Ageing Better’s Age-positive image library

Data collection is currently getting fully underway. In two local authorities, our senior researchers are shadowing social workers, talking to older people and carers, and reading notes. The detail of social workers’ actions and impact will be shown clearly for the first time.

We know a lot about social care and how much it is needed. We hear a lot about the importance of supporting people in later life.

The Social Work with Older People research project wants to clarify when and how a social worker is needed. We want to highlight and celebrate what social work offers – to older people, carers, families, other professions like health, and to our society.

We want to help ensure that any older person, any of us, who needs that specialist support gets it when and how it will best help. By seeing what social workers do and the impact they have, we will be able to recommend how best to deploy and support social workers in the future.

The Social Work with Older People (SWOP) research project is led by the University of Birmingham and the University of Bristol. The study is funded by the NIHR School for Social Care Research. It started in November 2021 and runs for two years. Findings will be shared in the second half of 2023.

You’re the one that I want

Committed, caring researchers WLTM social workers for inspiration, learning and positive change.

We have been recruiting social workers in two local authorities to take part in our research project. The social workers will be shadowed by researchers and interviewed. It is fantastic that social workers see research as part of their professional practice and are willing to get involved.

Hands held up in shape of a heart

There is a natural fit between practice and research. The capabilities for social workers include: KNOWLEDGE – Develop and apply relevant knowledge from social work practice and research. In our project, observing social workers and talking to them will show the reality of their work environment, the difference social work makes, and the ways it can best support older people.

It can be daunting to get involved in a research project. Some things for social workers to remember are:

  • You have the potential to offer insight and practice wisdom to research
  • Good research can show the reality of what it is like in practice and help to improve things; it is not there to catch practice out.

Some signs of a good project include:

  • Researchers who know about social work (our lead researchers are all social workers)
  • Involvement of people with lived experience in design and delivery of research
  • Carefully thought out ethics
  • Clear plans for how the research will be done
  • Commitment to using the findings to improve things for people who need social work.

Getting involved in research helps your professional development, helps social work, and ultimately benefits children, adults and families. Some other ways of getting more into research are:

Research is central to social work knowledge. As the Professional Capabilities Framework says: We develop our professional knowledge throughout our careers and sustain our curiosity. As a unified profession, we develop core knowledge that relates to our purpose, values and ethics. We also develop specific knowledge needed for fields of practice and roles. Our knowledge comes from social work practice, theory, law, research, expertise by experience, and from other relevant fields and disciplines. All social workers contribute to creating as well as using professional knowledge. We understand our distinctive knowledge complements that of other disciplines to provide effective services.  

It has never been easier to start a relationship with research and hopefully it will turn into a life-long passion.


On teamwork

‘Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.’

This is just one of many handy little mottoes you can find to describe teamwork, but despite the cliché, teamwork is not only essential for any research project, it’s what the best academic research is all about.

Over the last twenty years or so, I have worked in a number of different research teams, some happier, healthier and more effective than others, all with their different individual and group personalities and particular perspectives. Some teams can appear to be intellectual battlegrounds with astonishingly clever minds wrestling, like a dog with a bone, over competing ideas and fine details.  At the same time these can be places to learn, blossom and grow.

I’m happy to say the SWOP team is filled with highly experienced people who are a pleasure to work with. And I’m hugely impressed with the amount of preparatory work that already gone on behind the scenes. Our research leaders have completed a vast array of forms in huge detail for research funders, governing bodies, peer reviewers and ethics committees. Every possible question about the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ ‘when’, ‘why’,  ‘how’, ‘how much’ and ‘what-ifs’ of the research must be answered before the research gets going. That entails writing budget forecasts, risk assessments, theoretical frameworks and literature reviews – to name just a few elements. Thankfully, that’s not my job, but someone’s gotta do it and I’m grateful they did it so well!

As for us research fellows (a rather jolly generic term for people like Laura and me – different institutions use different titles), we arrive on the scene when the money is in the bank and the topic and methodology already decided.  As if armed with a new and testing recipe, we sally out to source the ingredients, bring them home to cut up and cook, and see what results. Only, that kind of Masterchef metaphor doesn’t quite capture it, since what we often end up with is a potentially inedible minestrone soup of data, with several large lumps of glutenous general consensus floating in it. These are surrounded by flavoursome and varied supporting morsels, a few interesting outlier smidgens stuck to the sides, and the occasional unexpected explosions of texture, colour and spice. Not quite the show-stopper, more the eccentric signature dish.

For me, the fieldwork is arguably my ‘best bit’, though it’s always accompanied by mixed emotions. There’s a curious anticipation and excitement involved in going out to new places to speak to new people, whose words and experiences matter; and also anxiety about one’s capacity to ‘do them justice’ and overcome the inevitable practical and technical hiccups. There is always a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability involved in fieldwork and this project, I expect, will be no exception, but it’s all part of the thrill. Thereafter begins a slow, mundane period of wading through the huge sea of words that flood across our screens, of trying to sort the dizzyingly complex thoughts and experiences of others into rational rows and columns as we try to tease out the specifics of What It All Means.

And then of course, comes the big So What? At this point, it’s wise to resist the urge to ponder on the meaning of life and instead, focus on IMPACT. Put aside all thoughts of car crashes for one moment, because ‘impact’ in this context is about the difference that all this work might make to the future. That is, the meaningful effect our research might have on policy makers, educators, practitioners, ‘thought leaders’ and/or anyone else who’s listening, or might listen, or should listen. On the SWOP project, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to get the findings out in a meaningful, very ‘applied’ way to social work practitioners and educators.  By developing a variety of accessible resources and reports, and getting these into the right hands, we aim to make a real difference to social work with older people on the ground and in higher-up policy-making circles.  

In this important endeavour, and throughout the project, the academic team will benefit from the combined wisdom of a much wider team to help guide us.  A brigade of expert advisors, including those with lived and/or practice experience,  are contributing to the research in the shape of  advisory groups at different levels.  This is a very welcome and innovative broadening of the research team that will help to ensure the quality, significance and impact of the research.

In all the meetings I have had so far, with academics and members of the wider team, I have found the collegiality, commitment and good will towards each other and the project to be inspiring. So there is indeed truth behind another queasily picture-perfect phrase:

‘We are not a team because we work together. We are a team because we respect, trust and care for each other’.

I feel very fortunate to have landed back in the South West, amongst family, friends and with a great research project ahead and a marvellous team of colleagues old and new that I really do care about. I look forward to meeting you all again and getting to know our valued participants. On that note, and to leave you with a final and amusingly accurate adage, passed on by one of our fabulous research administrators:

There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’, it’s mostly tea.

I think that’ll do for me  –  preferably iced, on this hot, hot July day. Until the next time…

Phoebe Beedell, Senior Research Associate, July 2022

For the better: A poem…continued…

We’re looking to create a new beginning,

Albeit built upon the social workers present craft,

Measuring the older persons sense of wellbeing,

When, with them, social workers interact.

It’s bred a research project of repute,

Enabling Birmingham and Bristol Universities to ply their skill,

Assembling the stakeholder range to avoid dispute,

Thus allowing all parties to proffer their goodwill.

Pilot study areas number two,

Walsall in the West Midlands and South West Somerset in place,

Geared to start in the summer of 2022,

As it unfolds, watch this space.

With the two senior researchers now in place,

And ethical approval almost there,

We’ve agreed its ‘People’ not ‘case’,

And meaningful engagement the yardstick of measure.

Equality, diversity and inclusion are to the fore,

Site demographics holding sway,

Incapacity allowed for,

It really will be everyone’s day.

The analysis framework is to be next discussed,

When multi-disciplinary involvement can be caught,

Progress shared through the national group representing us,

Plus local dissemination routes sought.

Graham. A person with lived experience. Member of the Expert Advisory Group.

Our progress so far … 6 month update

We’ve just completed our first bi-annual project report for our funders. It’s encouraging to take stock of what we’ve achieved so far and exciting to plan ahead to the next steps – but also a bit frightening to be aware of the clock ticking!

The early stages of a research project involve a lot of ‘setting up’ tasks before the collection of data can start and luckily, we allowed a comfortable amount of time for this. We’ve been working closely with our two sites to prepare them for ‘hosting’ the research and to help them start identifying which teams will be used as the focus for the research. They have already shown a lot of enthusiasm and support for the project which is a great start! 

We’re really pleased to have appointed two Research Fellows. Phoebe Beedell has already started and is working from University of Bristol. Laura Noszlopy is due to start work with us in June and will work from University of Birmingham. We’ll hear from them in future blogs. 

One of our first tasks was setting up an Expert Advisory Group so that the research is guided from the outset by people with lived experience and social work practitioners. (See previous blog by Balvinder Bassi and Sonia Clark, and the poem by Graham Price). The group have met twice so far and we’re very grateful for the guidance group members have given, for example, on the participant information sheets and other research tools.      

Older people walking in the park from Ageing Better’s age-positive image library

We’ve also held the first meeting of the National Stakeholder Group which is made of up of leaders of adult social care organisations. They have an important role in using their networks to share our research findings and help make changes in policy and practice. Another group which will meet regularly throughout the project is ‘G8’, social work academics who have expertise in social work with older people.   They will help us to publicise the project findings amongst other academics and support the use of resources we develop in social work education.

We’ve now got full ethical approval for the study, which means that we’re at the exciting stage of starting to recruit social workers who work with older people in the two sites. More to follow!   

Denise Tanner, SWOP Research Team

Left behind: Older people in conflict

“…it is an uncomfortable truth that while war does not discriminate, the international response does.” HelpAge International 2022

The political and humanitarian focus of Europe is currently on the impact of war in Ukraine. Social workers are amongst those providing an emergency response and planning for the long-term support that will be needed to sustain life and wellbeing.

Within this response, it is important to remember the particular needs of older people. Human Rights Watch highlight the threat and harm that older people face in conflict situations. They point out that, in many cases, older people are unable to flee. When they do, they face obstacles to safety and wellbeing, as a result of their needs and of pervasive ageism.

People who provide humanitarian help are urged by Human Rights Watch to:

  • Ensure that older people have equal information about and access to vital services, including psychosocial support
  • Analyse and respond to the specific needs of older people
  • Ensure that there are safe spaces for older people.

The response should be designed and developed in partnership with older people.

And when we call for essential help to be provided, we are asked to ensure that older people are not forgotten.

Share this blog and find out more

For the Better: A poem

We’re looking to create a new beginning,

Albeit built upon the social workers present craft,

Measuring the older persons sense of wellbeing,

When, with them, social workers interact.

It’s bred a research project of repute,

Enabling Birmingham and Bristol Universities to ply their skill,

Assembling the stakeholder range to avoid dispute,

Thus allowing all parties to proffer their goodwill.

Pilot study areas number two,

Walsall in the West Midlands and South West Somerset in place,

Geared to start in the summer of 2022,

As it unfolds, watch this space.

Graham. A person with lived experience. Member of the Expert Advisory Group.

Demystify what social workers do

As members of the BASW Adult working Group we welcomed the opportunity to be part of the Expert Advisory Group. We welcome this research initiative that will help to demystify to the general public what social workers do.

Debates about Health and social care and support for older people have gained prominence recently in political and social policy circles, following the increase in National Insurance that has been termed as the Health and Care levy. The promise to ‘fix’ the social care issue was a central plank of the government’s agenda for the current Parliamentary session. This has been on the agenda for at least the last decade.

In England, the Health and Care Bill working its way through Parliament currently and the debates around the reform of the Mental Health Act (1983), and the Mental Capacity Act (ie Liberty Protection Safeguards) will also bring about many changes to how social workers will work with older people and the decision making process in terms of care provision.

Covid 19 has highlighted the significant strains and tensions that exist between health and social care; the age old medical model versus social model. This includes the need for increased service provision to ensure that older people are safely discharged from hospital, that there is sufficient community support for older people, and that care in residential and nursing homes is provided safely. The voice of lived experience must be at the centre of the agenda.

It is in this context that the Social Work with Older People (SWOP) research project has started.

Social work in Adult Services is varied and diverse – settings including hospital settings, community and area teams and multi-disciplinary settings – and social workers bring enormous skill and resilience working with older people, their carers, family members and professional from across the health and social care spectrum to manage significant need and increasingly to manage risks. Social workers work within the framework of a mixed economy of care where Covid-19 has meant increased challenges in meeting service provision and increased demands.

It is positive that the research will examine some of these voices and experiences and the research project is informed by people with lived experience and some of us as social workers in practice and managers. The Expert Advisory Group will oversee and guide the research and be a forum to share knowledge between research sites. It will support the Research Team by providing expert input, acting as a critical friend, and offering questions and suggestions.

The research project will also encompass local Advisory groups composed of older people and care and social workers to input their voices into the research process, data collection and sharing of the findings.

The selection of research sites will afford the opportunity to explore differing needs. It is important to recognise equality and diversity – and unmet needs within communities that may have faced exclusion in research agendas previously – in order to inform future developments. As social workers, we feel it is an exciting initiative and will address some of the imbalance of research that rarely tends to explore social work voices in adult services and rarely focuses on the work of social workers with older people.

Balvinder Bassi is a Senior Social Worker, AMPH and Practice Educator. Sonia H Clark BSC CQSW is a part time social worker and a member of BASW since 1986.

Age with Rights: Global Rally 3 March

On Thursday, 3 March 2022, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People (GAROP) is holding a Global Rally

GAROP is mobilising ahead of the next United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing session in April 2022. The aim is to urge governments to support a new UN convention on the rights of older people.

The Capabilities Statement for social workers who work with older people in England (BASW 2018) emphasises why older people require and deserve specific action:

  • Older people face particular complex needs and situations arising across the life course with its associated changes and transitions
  • Inequalities persist, deepen and widen across the life course
  • Age discrimination (and its interaction with other areas of inequality) impacts on older people’s access to appropriate care and support.

This Global Rally recognises the importance of recognising and upholding rights in later life.

Share this blog, take part in the Age UK/ Age International webinar on Human Rights or join the Global Rally Summit on 3 March, and follow and use #AgeWithRights across social media.

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