Research That Matters (January 17 - 20, 2008)

Saturday, January 19, 2008: 10:00 AM-11:45 AM
Empire Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
[A/G] Observational Approaches to Aging Research
Symposium Organizer:Elana D. Buch, MSW, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
"Are You There?": Telephone Communication Styles of Older Persons and Their Family Networks
Tam Perry, MSW
"Just Treat Me like a Person": the Development of Caring Knowledge in Paid Home Care of Elders in Chicago, Il
Elana D. Buch, MSW, MA
Applying Qualitative Methods to Intervention Research: a Case Study of Mediation as Elder Advocacy Tool in the Context of Family Conflict
Alexandra L. Crampton, MSW, MA
Abstract Text:
PURPOSE: The studies in this symposium use observational methodologies to investigate changing social relations among and between older adults, family members and aging professionals. Research on aging emphasizes the importance of social relations in older adult's lives (Antonucci and Akiyama 1995). At the same time, prominent gerontological theory suggests that older adults' social relations change in patterned ways over time (Carstensen, Isacowitz et al. 1999). The papers in this symposium highlight the importance of investigating interactions between social context and changing patterns of social relations in old age for social work research, policy and practice. METHOD: Interest in qualitative methods has grown rapidly in social work research, though social work studies tend to rely upon interview methodologies to collect qualitative data. While interview methods are important tools for gathering data on research participants' life experiences and opinions, observational methods are well suited to improve social work knowledge about the ways that dynamic social relations, cultural context and socioeconomic structures pattern, constrain and give meaning to the lives of older adults. The papers included in this symposium use observational data collection strategies in a variety of aging contexts including older adult's homes, telephone conversations and in family conflict mediation. Observational data collection also enables analysis of continuous changes in older adults social relations over time. The observational data collection periods of studies in this symposium ranged from several weeks to over a year. FINDINGS: Observing the dynamics of older adults' social relations over time can yield critical findings about the contexts and experiences of aging. Buch observed interactions between older adults, home care workers, supervisors and family members over eighteen months of fieldwork and finds that over time care workers develop intimate, personalized “caring” knowledge of older adult clients that they then use to make claims to additional resources and authority. Perry's detailed linguistic analysis of telephone conversations between older adults and their family members offers a new way of thinking about how conversational styles are both stable over time and vary across social networks. It also considers how practices of social workers may change when social networks transcend place. Crampton observed an elder mediation program to investigate how professionals, volunteer mediators, elder clients and their family members interpret mediation outcomes, finding that perceptions of problems and thus of mediation success and and empowerment vary over time and context. IMPLICATIONS: These papers suggest that observational research methods are well suited to social work research on aging because they capture complex changes of older adults' lives and social relations over time, and should be more widely employed in social work research. Papers in the symposium will also address the particular challenges of conducting observational research in aging settings and explore methods used by participating researchers to resolve potential challenges. Together, these studies suggest that social work practice and policy must account for the ways that interventions such as mediation programs, home care services, or case management interact with the dynamic social relations already experienced by older adults and their families.

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