Dr Tine Buffel is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, part of the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing. She coordinated the Researching Age-Friendly Communities project which won the NCCPE Engage Award 2016 in the Working in Partnership category.
Watching the 85A bus wend its way every hour between Chorlton and Manchester city centre is a moment of immense pride for sociologist Dr Tine Buffel.
It’s just one of the many tangible benefits of an engagement project which puts the views of older people in the driving seat, as it were, in the debate over making our city centres ‘age-friendly’.
The project trained older people as co-researchers to discover what really mattered to those growing old in some of Manchester’s more challenging districts.
Age-friendly bus service
The bus service, which had been cut due to funding pressures, was a much-valued means of getting into town. When, after the project made its recommendations, the service was restored, residents dubbed the A in the 85A the ‘Age Friendly’ bus service.
“In many ways it is a little thing….but it is symbolic, it is the small things which make people feel a part of a community”, said Dr Buffel.
Researching Age-Friendly Communities aimed to help communities become more responsive to the changing needs of its ageing populations. By 2030, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities, with at least a quarter of those aged 60 or over.
If the 85A is a small advancement, Dr Buffel talks with passion about the bigger vision - for older people to feel more secure, more connected and more physically active in their city homes.
She admits to always being a city girl. Born in a picture-postcard village near Bruges in Belgium, she was yearning for city life from an early age. “I think I was about 12 years old when I told my parents I was going to live in the city. I’ve always preferred the vibe and creativity of a city compared to the quiet, rural life”, said Dr Buffel.
She was true to her promise and lived with a Turkish family for a year learning to speak Turkish and working with deprived groups for the first time.
Passion for social action
Tine went on to study educational sciences – a discipline with a strong emphasis on social action. “I’ve always gone by the somewhat Marxist mantra: ‘Philosophers have interpreted the world – our role is to change it!”, she (half) joked.
It was here a passionate and academic interest developed around tackling inequality and social injustice. She developed her specialism in researching age friendly communities, inspired by Professor Dominique Verté at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).
Her approach was inclusive right from the early days of her academic career: “I’ve always had a very strong interest in working with and not on communities. There are a lot of top-down initiatives where experts look down on things – to improve housing, transport etc. I’m interested in how you can create rights for the citizen…hearing them as loudly when they’re older, as we did when they were younger”.
It was around 2000 when she began working with older people as part of her research. It was in a municipality to the West of Flanders. “I realised we could use research as a framework for engaging with older people.” It started with one community and now over 180 municipalities in Belgium have signed up to the age-friendly agenda.
Moving to Manchester
It was when Dr Buffel brought her expertise to Manchester – thanks to an EU Marie Curie Fellowship – that the emphasis moved to how the same methodology can be used in low income areas.
In fact, she found great similarities between disadvantaged areas in Brussels and Manchester – poor housing, high levels of population turnover, fear of crime, cuts to services, are all example of this. “In older age you become more vulnerable to changes in the local environment”, she observes.
Life changing research
Her role as lead researcher for the Researching Age-Friendly Communities project has brought a great deal of profile – for her and the team. Dr Buffel was invited to speak at a United Nations Conference in New York, and the project was commended by the World Health Organisation…as well as winning an NCCPE award and the University of Manchester’s own Making a Difference award.
“It’s changed my entire life”, said Dr Buffel. “Thanks to my close collaborations with the Council’s Age-Friendly Manchester team and my University colleagues - Chris Phillipson in particular has been a fantastic support and inspiration from day one - and the fact that the University of Manchester is such a great place to work, I decided to settle down here and not to return to Belgium.”
It’s a big commitment, but one which is already leading to great things. Dr Buffel has secured a new ESRC Future Research Leaders award and looks forward to the future. “Manchester is my home now, and there is no place in the world where I would want to be for the type of work I do.”
As the 85A-ge friendly bus trundles down into the city centre, so other benefits from the project begin to emerge.
Said Dr Buffel: “What’s exciting is that things happen without me having to be involved. The group have set themselves up to apply for funding and to find solutions to the issues they identified in their research. They’ve become activists around the age-friendly agenda.”
The older co-researchers have offered their input into planning – such as the revamp of local parks – or age-friendly businesses; doing simple things such as removing trip hazards; ensuring goods are reachable; and that lighting is good for ageing eyesights.