I have recently finished data collection for the first study of my PhD project. The study involved a questionnaire and interviews with carers of people living with dementia about online support groups during COVID-19. This was my first experience of conducting mixed methods research and I was a little apprehensive about how it would all work because my research background so far had always been quantitative. However, reflecting on the project so far, even including all of the hours I’ve spent transcribing interviews, I am so glad that I chose to make this a mixed methods study.
Firstly, I wasn’t able to recruit as many participants as I had originally hoped so the questionnaire data on its own is interesting but hasn’t got much statistical power. The interview data is able to complement and build upon the questionnaire data and is able to explain the questionnaire findings whilst adding nuance. So, the questionnaire data is able to show that carers generally find face-to-face support groups more enjoyable but find online support groups more convenient. The interview data was able to capture some of the reasons behind this pattern of results and how relatively important convenience is compared to enjoyment of the sessions. For example, for someone who is working full time and can’t get to a face-to-face support group meeting most of the time, the accessibility and convenience of an online support group is the most important factor. People in this situation have been able to benefit from online services during lockdown and are afraid of losing services that have been a real lifeline to them. Equally, even though they’re in the minority, speaking to participants who don’t find online support groups more convenient, and the reasons why they don’t, has also been valuable as it’s important to – borrowing a realist mantra – understand what types of support group work, in what circumstances and for who.
Surprisingly, many participants who indicated that they had a really strong preference for face-to-face support group meetings on the questionnaire said in their interview that they would like to part in online or hybrid support groups in the future if they could get some training with technology.
Just from looking at the quantitative data, I wouldn’t have guessed this because, although this sounds kind of obvious, you only get answers to the questions that you ask. Using mixed methods has allowed me to better explore and represent the complex opinions of the participants and hopefully make a meaningful contribution to the literature.
Speaking to carers and hearing their stories has caused me to shift the focus of my PhD to focus more on examining the possibility of using a hybrid system for support groups where groups meet face-to-face but have a screen at meetings for people to call in from home using Zoom. Participants can go to the face-to-face sessions if they prefer whilst offering an online option for people who prefer online sessions or people who can’t attend in person for whatever reason, for example, if their respite care was cancelled last minute. As many groups have become comfortable with using Zoom over the last year, a hybrid system could be viable for many groups that wouldn’t have been interested in the concept pre-pandemic. It’s an interesting time for my research as COVID-19 could change the way that support groups work in the future.
Finally, hearing the stories of carers has been very moving. Many of the study participants have felt very isolated and have really been struggling. This motivates me to write an article that gets this across and helps others understand what it is like to be a carer for someone living with dementia and how we can better to support them. This motivation really helps me get through transcribing interviews. Can you tell how tired I am of transcribing interviews?
If you’re involved with a support group and are interested in using a hybrid system please do get in touch, you can find me on twitter @B_McLoughlin_ or you can contact me via email at email@example.com
Bethany McLoughlin is- a first year PhD student at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on investigating the effectiveness of support groups for carers of people with dementia. Compare the effectiveness and accessibility of online and face-to-face support groups and to explore the pros and cons of each approach. Beth has adapted her research to these changing times and is also interested to learn about the influence of COVID-19 on support groups, and whether online support groups have been effective way of decreasing social isolation in carers during the pandemic. Beth will be sharing her research, study and personal journey in a monthly blog for Dementia Researcher.
Did you adapt your study design to work around the impact of the pandemic? Reply below