Why grey matters for these academic researchers with a difference

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University of Stirling co-researcher Dave Curry. Photo: Newsline Media

Like many older people during the COVID pandemic, they were in search of company and mental stimulation.

Then came a chance for this group of retirees to tackle something none of them had tried before – academic research.

They signed up to be volunteer co-researchers with the University of Stirling, gathering and analysing qualitative data on the very thing they were experiencing themselves: how older people were living through the pandemic and lockdown.

Three years on, it has turned into much more than just something to do with their time. The co-researchers have learned new skills, authored research reports, presented at conferences and, along the way, found friendship and purpose. 

University of Stirling social scientists and seven co-researchers worked on a series of three reports that explored the lived experiences of the pandemic in adults over 50 living across Scotland, part of the University of Stirling’s Healthy AGeing in Scotland (HAGIS) project

Now the co-researchers themselves are both authors and subject of a research paper - reflecting on and sharing their experiences as co-researchers with the aim of encouraging other older people to become co-researchers and for academics to more regularly work with co-researchers.  The paper also includes lessons and recommendations from their work.

Among the findings of the paper - which is awaiting publication – are that the co-researchers built relationships outside of their research work, which extended to supporting and caring for each other through difficult times.

Co-researcher Dave Curry, a retired mechanical engineer living in Aberdeenshire, explains how the latest piece of research came about: “After we completed the HAGIS studies, we realised not only were we a strong team, but we had become peer support for each other. We are now thinking about what research we might do next and are interested in how over 50s in Scotland can develop resilience against what is ahead of them, whether that is climate change, changes in the economy, technology or health.”

Pat Scrutton, who previously worked in community development, speaks for many in the group when she says: “I’m not very good at being retired.” As well as being a co-researcher at the University of Stirling, Pat volunteers with research teams at the University of Dundee and Heriot-Watt University.

Ann Smith, who is retired from her job as a Procurement and Contracts Manager with SSE in Perth, says simply: “I want to keep the grey matter going.” And she says it made sense for older people to interview other older people. “We could empathise with the age group so it was easier to connect with participants. We brought out more from them. I think that sets us apart from other research projects.”

Professor Louise McCabe, a specialist in Dementia and Ageing with the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Social Sciences, works closely with the co-researchers. She says: “You could see immediately that they were developing a different sort of connection with participants they were talking to. They are empathetic with participants, and each brings particular skills to the table because of their work and life experiences.”

For Margot Fairclough, being a co-researcher has changed her life. She had just finished treatment for cancer when the first lockdown period began in 2020. Then she shielded throughout the rest of the COVID pandemic, as well as being a carer to a son with autism.

Margot says: “I was feeling brain dead and very anxious when I joined the group. I felt quite shaky about what I could contribute. But being part of this has given me a huge amount back. It has brought me back to life.”

It has also brought Margot her own university degree. The experience of being back in academia motivated her to finish a degree in Sociology which she had abandoned years before. She proudly graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 2023.

Now the group of co-researchers is on a mission to tell other over 50s to get involved in academic research – especially in the fast-growing sector of healthy ageing.

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