Way back in one of the first meetings of term Kate made reference to a project called TRACE. Well, they finally revealed more about it! The Trajectories to Community Engagement (or TRACE) project has been running over the last 6 months, and is a collaboration between Kate and Eric from our lab and Dave Harley from University of Brighton (and also an alumni of an earlier incarnation of this group). The aim of the study was to examine the way that older people (as self-defined by the participants, but over retirement age) engage with community. This included both online and face-to-face community engagement, in an attempt to understand what drove people to become more involved in either and if there was any link between the two.

This has been accomplished by interviewing a number of older people recruited from a variety of different areas, including an online social network aimed at older people and a local community centre. When analysing the data from these interviews, the group found a series of overlapping themes emerged:

  1. Roles
  2. Loss
  3. Spaces/places
  4. Family

The roles of the individual change with retirement, whether that is retirement from a paid job or otherwise. With retirement there appears to be less repeated contact with people (when compared to going to the same workplace regularly) and the sense of purpose changes. However, many of the people interviewed had filled the voids, either by volunteering, joining societies or in other ways. There was a sense of people finding new roles coming through in the interviews, as trustees, or committee members and so on.

Loss is most obviously shown by bereavement, with this leading to many people wanting to get more involved in their community. However, bereavement is only one type of loss. Others that emerged included the loss of role discussed above, or the loss of mobility or other abilities. There was also a shift as people got older, moving from an active role to a more passive one.

The spaces or places that enable community engagement are varied, and may be online (e.g. some had apparently become friends via an online bingo site) or not (e.g. the local community centre). There were differences amongst the participants in their use of the word local too. Those who found friendship online used ‘local’ to refer to their familiar online forums or groups, whilst for others it was geographical local that was important, and for that group an online friendship couldn’t be as fulfilling.

A shared interest is an important aspect to engaging with a community, and for many this was spurred by family. Many participants were engaged with communities because other family members were, e.g. involved in a theatre group because their daughter had been. This was an area that was felt to have changed over the lifetime of the participants. Because family members often move away, the family was felt to be less important in the life of the community. However, some of those who were involved in online communities were able to be so only with the help of a family member (although many did report family members who were slightly less than helpful!).

The group discussion was interesting. Ellie found a lot of resonance with the findings of the group and having moved away from friends and family (sadly a long way from retirement!). Ben felt they had two distinct populations within their participants – those who had been familiar with the online world before retirement (an increasing proportion perhaps, but by no means all), and those who were not. This second group will now be needing to get more proficient with computers due to changes in government processes, whilst also dealing with the other changes identified. They may have interesting coping mechanisms.

Good to finally find out about this project, and hope the team manage to find more funding to continue working on it.