Co-creation, older adults & Covid: six learnings

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes

We would have loved so much to add it to our New Year’s resolutions: innovating together with older people – like in the good old days. But after almost a year with COVID, it doesn’t look like we can go back to normal yet. So… postponing again? That would be a shame! With a little flexibility and creativity, more is possible than you might think. Flexibility when it comes to the older adults; the methodology as well as the innovations itself. I am happy to share six learnings from the past year! 

The older adults

1.     Think close

Instead of recruiting participants, I engaged in a conversation with my own grandmother about how she had experienced the process after my grandpa passed away – something that, as a granddaughter I was reluctant to do at first and as a researcher I was reluctant to burden her with. Not only did my grandma not mind at all, it also resulted in a nice personal conversation.

You often don’t need to search far for good stories. The threshold for diving into the depths with close others is sometimes higher than with strangers, but it is worth it and saves a lot of (travel) time.

2.    Join what already exists

It was not easy: recruiting individual older adults for a focus group. Moreover, participants had to meet several conditions and had to be willing to come to our office in these insecure times. The solution? We looked to join an existing bereavement group.

Joining an existing group has many advantages. The group is already complete; people know and trust each other; location is already arranged; meetings are already in the agenda of participants and the (COVID) rules of the external organization can be followed, which makes everything a lot easier.

3.    Nothing new under the sun

Older people remain older people. For example, one lady showed up an hour early in an online group session while my colleague and I were still making preparations. Still, older people like to arrive on time. Another lady called me the day before her participation in an online test because she was in need for some social talk. Even, or perhaps especially, in COVID times, social contact is often an important motivation to participate in research.

Much has changed. Yet much has also remained the same. Do not expect older people to suddenly behave completely differently online. So, don’t do that yourself either. 

The methodology

4.    Don’t wait

A planned focus group was replaced by individual phone interviews in order to get to know our target group. Crying, a lady who had recently lost her husband, answered the phone. The anonymity of the phone made her feel safe in her vulnerability. We would never have achieved this extra layer of depth in a focus group session.

Of course, it is a pity if you cannot carry out the activities as planned. But what a pity even more to wait without doing anything? You can learn so much in the meantime!

5.    Learning by (just) doing

‘Are older people able to do that, online research?’ Why not just try? My test-user had a tablet, but meeting me through TEAMS, sharing the screen, opening the app with camera and microphone, was too much to ask for. Both for her and for the tablet. But she was clever – and so were we. With the camera on and the lady in front of the mirror, we could still look at her screen. And by calling her by phone, we could even hear each other.

Trying something new requires creativity and perseverance. But it is very rewarding! Not just feedback on a new idea, but also insight into the research method itself: win-win.

The innovation

6.    A flexible service design

We tested a toolkit to support older people in sharing stories. The pilot, which resembled the real service as much as possible, consisted of some online activities and two physical sessions. Just before the second session, the COVID measures were tightened. The pilot was put on hold.

If this crisis has taught us anything, it is the importance of (user-friendly) digital solutions for older adults.  So if the implementation of our innovations needs to be postponed because of social restrictions,  are these then actually ready for the new normal? The new normal requires innovations with a flexible service design in which a group activity can easily be exchanged with one-on-one sessions, online or telephone activity; in which family members or caregivers play a role, if we have difficulty meeting the elderly; or by having the intervention fit in with activities that continue even with limitations, such as therapy or a care trajectory.


I am convinced that we will only come up with more sustainable solutions if we continue to involve older people in our research in creative ways. I am curious about your most important lesson from the past year!


Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU). She works as a researcher at Leyden Academy for Vitality and Ageing, studying the use of narratives to optimize the quality of residence care for older adults. Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

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