Toynbee Hall today publishes You don’t really know people ‘till you talk to them: Participatory Action Research on the needs of older people, a report based on a year-long study into the needs of older people in Tower Hamlets, East London.
The research project was developed to give East Londoners the chance to ask each other what they value and what they want from within their local community.
The report reflects the findings from the work of a diverse group of 20 local people aged 50 and over who were trained and supported to interview, survey, research and analyse the needs of their peers. As a result 500 other older people living around them in the local communities responded through surveys and interviews. Through conducting the research and gathering the views of their peers, the researchers have experienced a noticeable increase in confidence and skills.
The research comes at a vital time at which many older people have significant needs – but also feel they could contribute to their community. Despite Tower Hamlets rapidly changing youth demographic, it is an increasingly aging population, and our survey found that many older people feel isolated: 1 in 5 said they seldom or never had contact with others, including their families.
Although many people stay healthy, happy and independent well into old age, many residents age earlier than expected, developing long term conditions and disability by their mid-50’s. This creates greater health and social care needs. 
The findings and the learning from this piece of work provide really important insights for policy makers, service delivery organisations and anyone interested in designing and commissioning better services for people in local areas.
Safety is a key issue – with negative impacts not only on personal wellbeing, but also because fear of crime prevents people from actively engaging in volunteering, social projects and building bonds with their neighbours
Access to and information about services is critical – Despite austerity forcing significant cuts in services, in fact the key challenge people found was not the lack of opportunities but more that they didn’t know where services were based or how to access them. There is a particular need for advice on the complexities of benefits and pension credits, and a real need for better communication within and across communities.
There is a real desire from older people to be digitally active citizens – to keep in touch with each other and their families; and vitally to take part in social and other activities locally and further afield. To do this older people want more drop in centres offering IT training and places they can go to quickly sort technical issues.
Older people want very much to play a role in shaping their communities – as well as more traditional volunteering, there was a real appetite for learning new technical skills, such as questionnaire design and analysis. It is important that we don’t pigeonhole older people as only being interested in certain things.
While many organisations and institutions do try to listen to views from the community, there is a real risk of survey or consultation fatigue. This project tried to get away from an anonymous organisation asking questions, and reframe the discussion as one amongst peers – hence engagement was very strong
Older people want very much to play a role in shaping their communities – as well as more traditional volunteering, there was a real appetite for learning new technical skills, such as questionnaire design and analysis. It is important that we don’t pigeon hole older people into only being interested in certain things
The strength of a growing network of citizen advocates can’t be understated. The researchers – and many of those questioned – are now a real resource for the local authority and wider community: a skilled cohort who can listen, engage and understand issues and surface them to policy makers and commissioners in an effective way
Jim Minton, chief executive if Toynbee Hall said:
Tower Hamlets is an area with huge assets, but also a place of real inequality and significant social and economic change. Many older people want to have a bigger say in how to make things better, they just don’t have the opportunity. Through supporting local people to investigate and understand community needs – and propose solutions – we hope we have established a real optimism that not only can they enjoy better services, but they can help shape them. At the same time, older people say they are isolated, and need better advice on benefits and pension credits which are vital to their day to day needs. So there is still significant work to be done. The project has been a real learning journey for us, but one we hope will lead to better outcomes here in Tower Hamlets, and a stronger community for everyone.”
Primla Bhambri, one of the peer researchers said:
I have increased my confidence through this project. Now I am usually the first person to do something. My family are very proud of me.
I have also learned a lot about old people’s needs and what kind of problem they are getting. Many people are scared to go out from the house, and many people, they haven’t got the knowledge where to go. So this is eventful for me. Although I encourage them come and do this, come and do that they are so scared to come out of the house and they are scared walking on the road.”
Welcoming the report, John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets said:
“We want to make Tower Hamlets a better place to grow older and we continue to work with residents, health partners and community organisations including Toynbee Hall to ensure that older people remain a priority within our borough.
Many of the findings in the report reflect the work the council is carrying out to support our older residents to be more independent and to lead healthier, happier lives.
Earlier this year, we appointed Councillor Denise Jones, Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Wellbeing as Older People’s Champion. The appointment follows the launch of the council’s Ageing Well Strategy, which includes 10 themed commitments and action plans for improving the health, wealth, and wellbeing of older residents.”
 Older People in Tower Hamlets: Tower Hamlets Joint Strategic Needs Assessment 2016