To design a better world for our older citizens, we must better understand their needs. Over the last three years, WSP’s communications and engagement specialists have helped our clients deliver a range of projects requiring respectful and intensive engagement with thousands of older Australians.
We’ve supported community relations for the sale of multiple retirement villages involving a complex title procurement process. We’ve supplied bid management and communications and engagement support for the development of aged-care and retirement living villages.
We’ve supported clients in the aged care sector with stakeholder engagement requirements for masterplans. This includes leading the strategy and implementation of communication and engagement with residents who will need to relocate due to long-term redevelopment plans.
From these experiences, we’ve identified six ways to engage more meaningfully with a diverse and rewarding group of people.
1. Focus on the person rather than the outcome
To understand what motivates people, we must listen carefully to them. Sometimes, an individual’s motivation is very different from our initial assumptions. Often older people are seeking reassurance, certainty, or simply some much-needed social interaction in their day. It’s important to eliminate stress for the community member, and to prevent them from feeling rushed or unheard.
2. Consider whether technology helps or hinders interactions
In today’s digital world, we often enter engagement data directly into online record systems. Although this is efficient, it risks impeding active listening and authentic exchanges. We find sitting at someone’s kitchen table, taking handwritten notes, is often more effective than looking down and typing on our devices. We’re more present, engaged, better able to read body language and respond more appropriately, and able to adjust our communication style as required. This results in better outcomes for all.
3. Prepare, prepare, prepare
Preparation is always essential – but especially so when engaging with older people. It’s important to set up project channels, communication materials and engagement tracking systems before time. Good preparation reduces uncertainty and anxiety about a topic so engagement practitioners can communicate from a place of empathy rather than reactivity. For example, a person staffing a 1800 number will feel calm and well-equipped to respond when supporting materials are available, such as a guiding script, key messages, and frequently asked questions. Preparation defines our project set up, and extends to our record-keeping practices, as we prioritise giving participants a personal and tailored experience of engagement.
4. Be ready for emotive conversations
An engagement team needs high levels of emotional intelligence and the ability to respond effectively to highly emotive situations. When we engage older people, it may be to share challenging news, or to introduce change or complicated processes. To effectively present sensitive or potentially distressing information to older participants, we need to allow plenty of time for individual interactions, a consistent contact person to speak to, and multiple contact channels. We prepare our people for these sometimes-challenging projects by providing conflict engagement and mental health training, encouraging debriefs, and mandating regular breaks from emotionally demanding interfaces with community.
5. Avoid assumptions and stereotypes
Stereotyping tends to stem from a lack of information about particular groups. People may make unfounded assumptions about who older Australians are, and how they live. But our experience gives the lie to lazy characterisation. Older participants are us. They can be concerned, confused, or need additional support. Equally, they can be articulate, informed, curious and passionate. It’s vital the engagement process embraces the individual, not the stereotypes.
6. If in doubt, ask
To make our community engagement practices accessible to all participants, we always look for opportunities to test our thinking, approaches, and materials. Constraints on project deliverables often dictate tight schedules but engagement in general, and with older people in particular, shouldn’t be rushed. Ask older people what communication forms they prefer, so that their preferences can inform engagement planning. This might mean, for example, providing communications material in larger text, or one-on-one home visits to work through more complex matters.
Our clients come to us for our expertise and experience in designing and leading engagement programs, which help to safeguard our clients’ reputations, operations, and clientele. Find out more at https://www.wsp.com/en-AU/services/communications-and-engagement
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