The participatory action-research as a support for social education and intervention with older adults in care facilities

  • Sílvia Barros
  • Vanessa Alexandra Tavares
  • Sónia Martins


The purpose of this paper is to reflect upon the potentialities of action-research as a support for social intervention with older adults in daycare and residential care settings. The participatory action-research (PAR) methodology in the context of social education and intervention in adult daycare centers or residential care homes is based on the assumption that older adults are social actors, and thus they should be considered active participants in all actions and in research about their lives and contexts (e.g., Blair & Minkler, 2009). Therefore, their experiences and voices must be acknowledged, in order to fully accomplish social engagement and participation (e.g., Dare, Wilkinson, Marquis, & Donovan, 2018). We emphasize that PAR methodology contributes to social transformation, toward the improvement of quality of life throughout the whole life cycle, by facilitating participation, questioning, involvement and empowerment of social actors (Cembranos, Montesinos, & Bustelo, 1988; Serrano, 2008; Villegas Ramos, 1993).

In the present paper, the discussion and reflections upon the potentialities of action-research as a support for social intervention with older adults are embedded in the presentation of two action-research projects, developed in the district of Porto, in the context of a master program in Social Education and Intervention, specialization in Psychossocial Action in Risk Contexts. In both projects, older adults in daycare centers and/or in residential care home, as well as professionals working in these contexts, were, together with the master students, coconstructers of the intervention projects, actively participating in context analysis, intervention design, and evaluation of the project. For the project evaluation, the CIPP model (Stufflebeam & Shinkfield, 1995) was used. The main technics used to collect data for the context analysis and evaluation were participant observation and intentional conversations. Problems and needs were prioritized by participants, considering the degree of importance and emergency, the available resources and potentialities, and the time for developing the project.

The main purpose of the first project (Tavares, 2016) was to promote a better quality of life for older adults, reducing their sense of isolation, loneliness and passivity, thus increasing their biopsychosocial well-being. To gradually achieve this crucial purpose, four main objectives were defined: (a) promote the (self)valorization of the skills of the older adults, enhancing their active participation and initiative; (b) expand the social network of the older adults and promote the establishment of more frequent social contacts; (c) strengthen positive interpersonal relationships contributing to social and emotional well-being; and (d) promote the more active involvement of professionals in the daily life of the older adults. Four main actions were developed, with the participation of a group that varied between five and 40 older adults, and frequently with the participation of one or two professionals and two students other than the social educator. Though main activities were developed in group setting, this project also included activities designed specifically with one older adult in close relation to his/her needs.

The main purpose of the second project (Martins, 2016) was to promote well-being and personal and social development of the older adults, by improving interpersonal relationships and by increasing active participation in activities. Three main intervention actions were organized, with three general objectives: (a) promote more positive relationships between residents; (b) involve participants in organizing and leading the activities, valuing their own skills; and (c) encourage more frequent contacts between residents and their families. Two of the actions were planned to actively involve and empower older adults, and the structured activities had the participation of five to 10 adults; the third action intended to engage the older adults’ relatives.

For both social interventions, core strategies were intentional conversations, group dynamics exercises, and group discussions. Other specific strategies were used in each of the projects.

The PAR methodology and the CIPP model were crucial for a better and deeper knowledge of the social context, for the project design and development, as well as for its evaluation, with strong benefits for people involved, who were assumed as protagonists in seeking a change in their lives and institutions. If, in the beginning, the social educators (master students) had a crucial role in engaging other social actors, during the process their participation was increasingly easier and spontaneous.

More specifically, in the first project, the results were perceived as significant by the participants, as they rose from a participatory reflexive process and also from team work among some of the professionals. So, and although it was highlighted as important to assure the project continuity, the establishment of more frequent and positive interpersonal relationships and the rise of new social contacts were seen as important steps to achieve an increased quality of life and to reduce loneliness and social isolation of the older adults. One of the important reflections of this project was related to staff involvement in the social intervention, as it was one of the main challenges and obstacles to its success. This difficulty was acknowledged, and reinforced the importance of a thoroughly and shared context evaluation (e.g., Stufflebeam & Shinkfield, 1995) by all participants, including the higher hierarchy in the institutions, in order to assure significant transformative processes.

In the second project, one of the major results was to make the older adults’ voices listened, facilitating their active involvement, the improvement of their interpersonal relationships and the awareness of the participants regarding their influence in the process of change, contributing to their well-being, development, and empowerment. One of the main reflections was on the difficulty of (a) involving older adults with more severe cognitive difficulties, and (b) engaging families in the residence daily life. Also, the continuous difficulty in involving professionals in activities more closely related to older adults’ interests, not prioritized in the beginning, signaled out that evaluation of context may occur in different phases of a research-action project.

Moreover, the option for the PAR methodology was seen by the social educators, in their role as master students and coauthors of this paper, as opportunities for self-growth and for the development of knowledge and skills essential for eliciting social participation in different professional contexts and, in particular, with older adults and professionals.