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  • Writer's pictureSophia Webber and Taylor Gray

Bureau of Sages: A Success Story Engaging Frail Older Adults in Research

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Banner with images of guests and hosts of Aging PCOR Learning Collaborative Podcast
Left to Right: Dr. Rebecca Berman, Dr. Rachel Lessem, Taylor Gray, Sophia Webber


In this episode, Sophia and Taylor speak with Dr. Rachel Lessem and Dr. Rebecca Berman about the Bureau of Sages and the opportunities for researchers to participate in meaningful engagement. Read Sophia’s reflections below to get a better idea of the student perspective!

Patient Centered Outcomes Research (PCOR): Research that engages the patient (or participant) at every stage of the process. It values patients as partners, not just as research subjects.

Listen to the Episode Below:

Sophia’s Reflections

As researchers, our most basic assumptions about our research topics may not be true– and this is actually an exciting opportunity.

My name is Sophia. I am a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin- Madison and a co-host for the Aging PCOR Learning Collaborative podcast series. My co-host Taylor and I are student advisors for the Learning Collaborative, a project focused on promoting engagement of older adults in aging-focused research. As student advisors, we offer our experiences as students to inform the design and implementation of this project. What excites me most about advising the Learning Collaborative is the intriguing and slightly scary notion that Dr. Rebecca Berman points out in this podcast: when we endeavor to design research, we inevitably make assumptions, and those assumptions may be wrong.

Prior to graduation, I studied in the Food Systems Certificate program at UW-Madison and worked on the student farm. I spent a lot of time thinking about food– theorizing about it, reading about it, growing, harvesting, and washing it. I had the opportunity to work with farmers, indigenous seed keepers, and food justice activists. As different as these experiences may seem from engaged aging-focused research, they often brought me to that very same conclusion about our assumptions.

As my peers and I endeavored to design more sustainable food systems, we made countless assumptions, most of which were influenced by the literature and assignment requirements, our personal preferences and experiences with food, as well as our professors’. Our assumptions were often well-researched and good-intentioned, but the more time I spent growing food, the more uni-dimensional even our most basic assumptions about it appeared. The lived experience of feeding a community generates wisdom and insights that we simply cannot replicate in the classroom or even in the confines of our half-acre student farm.

Why should we try to replicate it? Why not bring those experts to the table instead? When my peers and I stopped treating work with farmers as field trips but rather as engagement with our co-collaborators, our research questions changed, our work for the farmers became more effective and innovative, and we grew over 4000 pounds of organic produce on our half-acre plot that season (quite a bit more than usual.)

Research is exciting because so many gaps in our knowledge and systems exist. Unfortunately, we make a lot of assumptions about those gaps, often without asking for input from those living the reality that those gaps produce. In this podcast, Dr. Lessem and Dr. Berman highlight the wisdom and insights that older adults living in long term care facilities bring to aging-focused research. Their lived experience allows them to frame and consider those gaps differently from a researcher coming in from the outside. As a student of engagement, many of my assumptions have been challenged at this point and luckily, it’s not nearly as discouraging as it sounds. If you are interested in discussing lived experience and engagement, and inviting folks with both to challenge your assumptions, join the Aging Research Network (ARN). The ARN is the social media platform we designed for this project, where older adults, researchers, students, funders, and caregivers interested in engagement can connect, ask questions, and find more podcasts like this one! Click the “Aging Research Network” button below to join!

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