Grey and pleasant land? An interdisciplinary exploration of the connectivity of older people in rural civic society
The study will focus on the quality of life of older people in rural areas by analysing the extent of their involvement in their communities, leisure patterns and cultural interests. It will also address the barriers and opportunities for participation that they experience and their attitudes to the countryside as a social, cultural and environmental space.
Catherine Hennessy, University of Plymouth
Rural areas throughout the UK are ‘greying’ due to a combination of demographic trends including increased life expectancy, out-migration of young people and, in many locations, in-migration of retirees. To date, however, the impact of population ageing in these rural areas has received comparatively little attention by researchers.
Growing older in contemporary rural Britain is experienced against a backdrop of issues such as incomer group pressures, minority group citizenship, gentrification and changes in land use, all of which have implications for ageing identities, attachment to place and participation in community life.
Existing studies show that many older residents of rural communities report a variety of disadvantages which affect their inclusion in community life. Broader in-depth research coverage is needed on the determinants and quality of life impact of older people’s connectedness in rural communities in the UK. Particularly needed are studies which explore the positive aspects of rural living for many older people, including the potential contributions of older people to rural community and citizenship.
The use of interdisciplinary perspectives and methods offers expanded potential for characterising key aspects of older people’s inclusion (‘connectivity’) in rural community life, i.e. cultural, spatial, social, economic and technological connectivity and the role which these links play in facilitating civic engagement.
The aim of this research programme is to investigate the circumstances, experiences and quality of life impact of older people’s connectivity in civic society in rural areas.
The research is being carried out in rural settings in South West England which has the most ageing population structure of all regions in England and in rural Wales which is experiencing similar demographic trends.
The research programme is comprised of seven interlinked work packages (WPs) employing a mixed methods framework including a broad range of quantitative and qualitative methods:
WP1 is using existing national and other relevant datasets and collecting new primary survey data to investigate social, spatial, technological and cultural connectivities and their relationship to civic involvement among persons aged 60 and over. This data will serve to create a common conceptual core for the programme as a whole and as a platform for additional data collection in each of the other WPs. A total sample of 1,200 older persons will be interviewed in six rural areas in South West England and Wales.
WP2 will examine the role of cultural and leisure activities in active ageing through an intergenerational oral history project designed to promote awareness of older people's contributions to community cultural capital. Qualitative biographical accounts of older people’s participation in cultural and leisure activities will be used in conjunction with WP1 primary survey data to address research questions regarding earlier life and current involvement in cultural activities and leisure pursuits and as a basis for a community oral history project, interactive website and museum exhibition co-created with the project participants.
WP3 uses biographical and survey methods to increase our understanding of older persons' physical connectivity in relation to their transport and other mobility needs in rural areas and the goal of achieving sustainable rural communities. Older people’s behaviours, perceptions and meanings related to their physical connectedness and access to their rural communities are investigated in WP3 in light of identified rural transport policy dilemmas.
WP4 includes two projects which use tools from the arts to examine how older people experience connectivity, rural place and space and identity. It focuses on the experiences and perceptions of rural living among older residents including those whose lifestyles may not fit existing community norms and/or remain invisible and disconnected. The first project is investigating the connectivity (or lack thereof) experienced by gay and lesbian older people residing in rural settings while the second project explores older rural residents’ conceptions of the physical, social and cultural landscapes in which they locate themselves, focusing on issues of memory, place and identity and their relationship to the ageing experience. Arts-based outputs from this WP include a film, website and multi-media book-based publication.
WP5 will use primary survey data from WP1 and ethnographic methods to investigate problematic aspects of rural living among older persons through examining the nature and extent of material deprivations experienced in low-income households in the study areas and the relationship between these deprivations, connectivity and social capital.
WP6 will build on the involvement of collaborating stakeholder groups in this research (older rural persons panels, non-academic partner organisations and international academic experts in rural ageing) to explore stakeholder views on quality of life issues for older rural people. The project will use web-based computer methods to enable connectivity among these groups and to investigate older rural persons' use and experiences of communication technology.
Finally, the work of a seventh WP will coordinate and synthesise the individual programme research findings into a coherent overall account of older people’s involvement in rural civic society. It will also investigate the interdisciplinary research process through qualitative analysis of research team meeting proceedings and contributions of the WPs and disciplines to a programme web-based knowledge management system through which interdisciplinary theory is developed.
Engagement with policymakers, practitioners and other stakeholders will focus on using the research findings and outputs to raise awareness of older people as sources of actual or potential rural civic capital, identifying barriers and facilitators to realising these social resources and demonstrating how the contributions and experience of older people in rural areas can be promoted as positive community assets.