Recognising the importance of relationships

This blog post will highlight one key theme that is emerging from our data; how important relationships between project workers and participants are for both early and ongoing engagement in the project.

This is the second blog post about the longitudinal study we are conducting as part of the Age Better in Sheffield learning and evaluation programme.

We are taking a qualitative approach to understand peoples’ journeys through our projects, their experiences of the projects they are involved in and how the project intersects with other aspects of their lives. The study is being undertaken primarily by a team of peer-researchers, also known as story-catchers. 

Our previous blog post outlined the importance of carefully listening to participants’ stories in our study and reflected on some of the complexities of being involved in this type of research. We have now completed our first round of interviews with eight participants from two projects, A Better Life, delivered by SOAR and Start Up, delivered by Ignite Imaginations. Following this first round of interviews we came together as a research team to start to analyse the data we had collected so far. We were particularly interested in understanding more about when people first enter a project and how their engagement is sustained.  

This blog post will highlight one key theme that is emerging from our data; how important relationships between project workers and participants are for both early and ongoing engagement in the project. As we have only completed one round of interviews our understanding of this theme is still developing, and we hope to be able to build a more comprehensive account as we collect and analyse more data in the second and third round of interviews.  

 Sustaining engagement by building rapport 

Many of the participants we spoke to emphasised the relationship they had with project workers as key to both their early and continued engagement with the project. A social café with financial advice is part of the A Better Life project and participants highlighted the importance of the relationship they had built with the project workers who run the social café. This is exemplified by one of our participants, Zaq, who said:  

“I get [a] call to make sure I’m coming. She said maybe I’m [forgetting], I said no, I like coming.  So already I come in half an hour before everybody else.” 

       Zaq, A Better Life participant, 23rd July 2019 

Here, Zaq speaks of the importance of the project worker calling him before each social café to check if he is coming. In this exchange he feels welcomed and cared for and is made to feel part of the group, even arriving early. Later in the interview Zaq returns to the care he receives from the project workers and, in particular, the phone call before each social café, demonstrating that these very ordinary, everyday occurrences are very much valued by project participants:  

Always asking ‘Want tea, want tea?’  Oh yeah, it’s very nice, honestly.  She phoned me this morning, she said ‘Are you coming down?’  I said ‘Yes…that day when I come, I have it on the calendar.’”  

      Zaq, A Better Life participant, 23rd July 2019 

 Building rapport with the project worker was also seen as crucial by participants from the Start Up project. Start Up encourages older adults in Sheffield to develop and establish groups, events or activities. Start Up beneficiaries can receive up to £200 of financial support for their activities and can also access practical help from Ignite Imaginations. Paula, one of the Start Up beneficiaries, described to us how the flexibility of support offered early on in the project was beneficial to her, from being able to meet in a local café, to having face-to-face support to fill in forms: 

“I met the woman that organises the Age Better Sheffield Project…I met her in just a local cafe, so she told me initially about the project, I met her, you know, she said ‘Just meet wherever you want to be’, so we just met at a cafe in between us both, and she got all the forms out and went through it, and then we had a series of meetings with her filling the forms in or me filling them in and she was there, which, as I said to [her] afterwards, was priceless for someone … as a carer I spend a lot of time filling in forms…and if someone had just posted the forms and said ‘Do it’ I would not have done it…” 

         Paula, Start Up beneficiary, 18th July 2019 

A Better Life and Start Up are very different projects, but participants in our study emphasised the importance of building relationships with project workers as key to their continued involvement with each of these projects. It is the minutiae of these encounters that are highly valued and contribute to the ongoing success of the project.  

Written by Sarah Peck