Recruitment and retention of older adults: Lessons shared from conducting an intervention study



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University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work


Many social work researchers are hesitant to conduct intervention studies. A colleague of mine remarked, “No way would I conduct an intervention study. It’s like triple jeopardy: You need to bank on finding willing subjects, need to bank on them showing up, then you need to bank on changing them? No thanks!” In addition to these obstacles, intervention studies are also costly and time consuming. Despite some of the challenges associated with intervention research, I chose to do an intervention study for my dissertation, “The impact of a yoga intervention on the mental wellbeing and physical functioning in older adults living in the community.” The study was a classical experimental design that entailed designing a yoga intervention, recruiting a community sample from a low-income senior housing building, and carrying out the study using random assignment of subjects to either a yoga intervention group or a neutral socialization group that were shown movies. Measures for this study included depression, morale, hope, isolation, balance, flexibility, and lower body strength. In an effort to include as many subjects as possible, the study did not use inclusion criterion of a mental health diagnosis or cutoff score. Approval for this study was granted by Fordham University’s Institutional Review Board. Informed consent was provided for each subject at the time of enrollment. The informed consent and study procedures were carefully explained to each subject in a one-on-one setting. If the person agreed to participate in the study, she or he then signed an informed consent form. Because the residents of the senior housing building are presumed to be independent and capable of making their own decisions, it was unnecessary to involve any other parties. Researchers have been urged to share their struggles and successes regarding recruitment with other researchers (Harris & Dyson, 2001). Thus, the purpose of this article is to share some of my experiences and insights regarding recruitment and retention in order to help doctoral students decide if an experimental study may be feasible for their dissertations. This is important for at least two reasons. First, I hope it will allow doctoral students to determine how much time will be needed to carry out an intervention study. Second, it provides specific strategies and challenges that may be applicable to other types of intervention studies and target populations. Recruitment and retention of subjects for studies targeting older adults has been widely documented as more difficult than other populations. Arean and Gallagher-Thompson (1996) cite that between 70% and 80% of older adults approached to participate in mental-health studies agree to participate, whereas the standard in younger samples is 90–95%. Despite incorporating many strategies suggested by other researchers for increased recruitment, such as transportation to the cite, providing monetary incentives, and minimizing participant confusion by having the same interviewer administer baseline and follow-up measurements (Arean, Alvidrez, Nery, Estes, & Linkins, 2003), this study had a small sample size despite various and ongoing efforts to recruit participants. After multiple administrations of the intervention, the final sample size was 18 (N=18), with 35.3% of the eligible residents recruited into the study. Recruitment for the study began with hanging informational flyers around the building, distributing flyers under each resident’s door, word of mouth by building staff, and holding informational sessions about the study. If a resident expressed interest, she or he was instructed to return on the day of enrollment to provide informed consent and to complete the pretest. With these strategies, there was a limited response, and it became apparent that the recruitment strategy would need to be tailored to the population. Thus, each resident was personally invited to participate by either me or the building social worker. I offered to visit individual apartments to explain the study one-on-one prior to enrollment. Recruiting was considered exhausted after every eligible resident had been contacted.



Perspectives on Social Work, Donna Wang, Perspectives on Social Work, Social work