Older women's lives and voices: participation and policy in sheffield

Project lead: Dr Lorna Warren

Research team

  • Dr Lorna Warren

  • Dr Tony Maltby

  • Dr Joanne Cook


January 2000 - July 2002


Dr Lorna Warren
Department of Sociological Studies
University of Sheffield
Sheffield, S10 2TU

Tel: +44 114 222 6468
Email: L.Warren@sheffield.ac.uk


The feminisation of ageing European populations is well documented, as are many of the implications for older women's quality of life (QoL) and for policy. While women are living longer, they are also experiencing lengthy periods of chronic illnesses. Assessment of their health and social needs, however, depends on a mix of social and structural factors. For example, the poverty in later life experienced by many older women can be the result of their positions in the labour force and as caregivers.

Recent studies have adopted life-course and autobiographical approaches to understanding older women's lives. However, few studies have explored the impact on the quality of women's lives of the intersection of ageism, sexism and racism. Consequently very little research has been focused directly on minority ethnic older women.

Transformations in approaches to older women, reflected in the broader gerontology literature, have seen the replacement of models of old age which emphasise dependence and senescence with approaches that focus on 'participatory', 'active' or 'productive' ageing. The emphasis is on social quality and the identification of conditions which enable individuals, as citizens, to participate in the social and economic lives of their communities in ways which enhance their well-being and individual potential.

Accompanying these transformations are new emphasises in service provision that have focused upon improving public and user participation. However, we still have limited insight into localised levels of representation. For example policy-makers have declared the concept of empowerment the driving force within services for local people but the concept remains both elusive and contested, based around consumer models rather than user-empowerment models centred on clearly defined rights.

Aims and objectives

The overall goal of our study is to demystify the lives of older women as a basis for change. The research aims to increase knowledge and awareness of issues which affect the QoL of older women and their desire and ability to have a say in the services which are available to them. Focusing on the experiences of older women from different ethnic groups in Sheffield, the main objectives of the research are to explore:

  • Older women's everyday understanding of QoL.

  • How older women across different communities promote their QoL.

  • The experience of older women in using public services defined as being of relevance to QoL.

  • Older women's perceptions of their ability to 'have a say' about the services which impact on their lives.

We also aim to contribute to the development of ethically appropriate participatory or social action research methods in the study of policy and older women's lives.

Study design

This study will work in partnership with the Sheffield Better Government for older People Pilot (BGOP) which aims to empower older people by: i) increasing opportunities for active citizenship and ii) developing opportunities for isolated and housebound older people to be heard. The research will take a life-story approach, chosen for its potential to give people agency in defining their own needs. It is our desire to build a partnership model of research, we shall therefore work with all stakeholders, especially older women and service providers.

Our main methodological aim is to involve older women in the research in a meaningful way, both by talking with older women involved with the different initiatives and by involving older women as researchers themselves. Consequently there will be three complementary strands to our research strategy:

  • Observation and documentation of user involvement in BGOP initiatives, including focus groups centred on specific initiatives and separate focus groups held with women from different minority ethnic groups in Sheffield.

  • The recruitment of a small group of ten older women volunteers to act as researchers and carryout interviews/purposeful conversations with older women in the different communities in Sheffield.

  • Conducting semi-structured interviews with relevant professionals/service providers in Sheffield.

Policy implications

The study will inform public and policy debates concerning ageing, gender, 'race'/ethnicity and QoL. It will highlight the relationship between older women's ways of maintaining or promoting QoL and their political, economic, social and cultural positions.

The research will provide a source of data on the merits and demerits of public services from the perspectives of older women. It will shed light on older women's attitudes to more active participation in public policy decision-making and on the individual, cultural and structural opportunities and constraints experienced by older women in relation to their involvement within service provision.

The study will recommend ways to encourage dialogue between older women and service providers at the local level, leading to more proactive approaches to public service policy. This will be invaluable for the development of responsive public services encompassing the private, voluntary, public and community-based sectors.

The project will assist in the development of ethically sensitive and participatory methodologies for application in social gerontological and social policy research, and, more broadly, in sociological and anthropological research.