Starting conversations with older people in the street

by Jo Stapleton from the Ageing Better in Camden Outreach Service.


What we planned

We planned to approach older people out in the community – out on the street, in local shops, cafes and pubs, in order to promote ABC partner activities and engage older people in conversation.

Using a simple tick box recording system, we would record interactions and outcomes including information provided, interest, follow up and comments from the older people we encountered such as local information, responses or reactions to our information or approach. 

We would try a range of approaches including being based in one place and also roaming outreach activity.

Our expectations

  • That many older people would be unresponsive and or unreceptive to being approached in the street. 
  • This activity could feel difficult or awkward for the Outreach Worker and therefore a challenge to sustain.
  • That older person might assume we were fundraising/selling something and on that basis not stop to chat/engage.
  • That many people would take a leaflet/event flyer but not be open to stopping for a chat.
  • That we would encounter more women than men who would be happy to chat.
  • That being stationary in one place – e.g. outside a supermarket, would be the best approach in terms of footfall and opportunities to engage people in conversation.

What happened? What went well or could have gone better?

We found that approaching people proved much ‘easier’ than expected. The majority of older people we met were happy to chat and welcomed our approach to provide information about local activities, even if proved not to be of interest.

We encountered and engaged in conversation roughly equal numbers of older men and women (of 121 outreach engagements undertaken during the testing period, we spoke to 51 men and 70 women).

Using a multiple/complex activity offer as a promotional tool proved difficult. This was because it was unclear to the person what the focus of the discussion was. People felt uncomfortable about being drawn in to a potentially lengthy conversation/too much information, latched on to activities not of interested (e.g. man looking at information featuring what he interpreted to be female orientated activities) and on this basis were put off from the offer. 

It proved easier to promote a specific activity rather than large amounts of information e.g. full activity programme. All information needs to be in an accessible clear size font and imagery to include both men and women. (It was difficult to approach men with promotional material featuring only images of women)

Basing outreach activity outside a supermarket proved less successful in terms of people being willing to stop for a chat, as people assumed we were fundraisers.

Why did this happen?

We quickly identified that introducing ourselves, showing ID and confirming that we were not fundraising/selling anything and confirming that we wanted just to share information, proved the most effective approach to engaging people in conversation.  Once our motivation and purpose was established, this removed much of the initial awkwardness and suspicious aroused by our approach to initiate conversation.

During the test and learn activity, we used a variety of promotional materials with mixed success. We quickly became aware of the types of communication that worked best in an outreach context by the questions asked/level of interest and engagement from the older people we approached. 

Lone men tended to be out in public spaces such as high streets and their local area during the week – walking around and also in pubs and betting shops. This activity took place during February/March, women tended to be less visible/present on the street during the week unless engaged in a specific activity such as visiting shops or cafes.  Men on the whole, were very happy to chat to us and often engaged in more lengthy conversations about a wider range of issues (often telling us about their personal circumstances and situation) than women. As a result, we provided signposting information including Age UK Camden information and advice service to the men we encountered out in the community.

We found that wearing an Age UK Camden t-shirt, aroused suspicion about our approach – people assuming the outreach team were fundraising. By dressing informally (non-business) we were perceived as non-threatening/wanting something from the person, and this had a positive impact upon initiating engagement.   

What will you do differently next time?

We will avoid asking specific questions such as ‘are you local’ to open a conversation as this provided opportunities for people to close down the conversation/interaction, before we’d had an opportunity to provide information.

Avoid remaining static on high street location – particularly if fundraisers are present in the same area/street. Approaching someone as a result of walking along the street felt like a more natural approach and prevented the older person feeling uncomfortable/avoiding us on the street.

Ensure that we have a range of simple and clear promotional materials to promote specific activities, enabling the outreach worker to tailor their approach. 

Key learning points

  • Use a range of flyers promoting individual activities (rather than multiple/complex offer). This enables a tailored approach e.g. to approaching men with male orientated activities/older people with mobility appropriate activities e.g. seated yoga. 
  • Provide identification ‘hello my name is x from AGE UK Camden’, show identification and reassure that you are not fundraising or selling anything.
  • Use the flyer as a tool for opening discussion ‘we are just here to let local people know about x’, and provide additional information responsively.
  • A roaming approach (as opposed to being static in one place), makes the interaction approach be less likely to be perceived by the older person as fundraising activity
  • Undertake outreach activity to promote a specific event/activity – close to the date the activity/event will take place. 
  • Don’t prejudge who to contact/approach based on own assumptions. Accept that sometimes you will get it wrong (the person may be younger than 60) may not look like your target audience for the activity.
  • Be open, friendly and informal in approach and happy to chat rather than business like.
  • Offer follow up – if older person has questions, intimates they have other interests, needs help or information. Take a name and a number and offer to contact.
  • Use tick box monitoring system to discretely record outcome of interaction after it has taken place e.g. male/female, info given, interested etc. The majority of interactions did not provide opportunities to capture of personal details such as name, telephone and address.