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Adult mental healthDementiaMental health and society

Developing research into using social networks to manage the experience of dementia

22 November 2017

For my Cardiff University Undergraduate Research Programme placement, I was fortunate to be offered the chance to work with the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Methods and Data (WISERD) on a project relating to improving the experience of living with dementia. This work focuses on the factors which allow individuals with dementia to experience quality of life, with my supervisor’s work focusing specifically on the influences of social networks and relationships. Existing literature has indicated that social relations can be pivotal for exploring any negative experience that an individual may have, and dementia is no different.

When I started, the project was already ongoing, and I was given the task of reviewing the existing literature in order to evaluate the use of sociograms as a method of data collection. These diagrams map the social networks of individuals, and had been used to great effect in the research that had been conducted so far. However, one problem that was becoming evident was devising the best way in which to analyse the data that they had recorded.

For the duration of my placement, I analysed and cross referenced a body of literature which involved focus on both mapping social networks and the effect of social networks on dementia. From here, I was able to see how other research had modified the designs of the sociograms that they were using to capture data specific to the research question. In addition, I was able to determine what exactly was relevant to our research question by reviewing a combination of substantive literature, and interview transcripts from when our participants had populated their sociograms. Together, this gave me a clearer idea of what it was the sociograms needed to be encoding, and how best to put this into practice.

I was able to draw from the methodological research to propose that certain amendments were made to our sociograms as a method of data collection. These included introducing a colour coding system to represent types of relationships, and using the pre-existing structure of the sociogram to assign numerical values to different degrees of relationship for easy analysis. This process was facilitated by the understanding of what data was important to encode, that I gained from my substantive literature review and transcript analysis.

In relation to the wider research that my supervisor is conducting, this adapted methodology may enable richer data collection. Nuances that were mentioned in the population interview can now be graphically represented in the sociogram, and even converted to numerical values for statistical analysis. It may be the case that we are soon able to correlate sociogram measures with scores of wellbeing and quality of life, providing an objective basis for understanding the importance of social relationships within the experience if living with dementia. This research would also include the carers of individuals with dementia, a group that is typically at risk of social isolation and mood problems due to their extensive care duties.

What I value most about my experience is that I was able to develop independent research and data skills that I would normally not have needed to use to such as extent. This will prove valuable when I begin my final year project, as I am now equipped with the necessary abilities to carry out effective research. As a psychology student, it also allowed me insight into the social sciences, an area in which I would otherwise not have the chance for any experience.