Clare Farrance is an incredibly motivated woman who wants to make a real difference with her research. She is currently in the second year of her PhD, entitled: Tackling the invisible burden of physical inactivity in older people, a study that she was inspired to pursue after her experiences of working as a physiotherapist, particularly in a role as a community physiotherapist within an integrated community rehabilitation team in Dorset.
“Being part of an integrated team meant that I had a dual role: to prevent admissions to acute hospital or to facilitate early discharge where possible, and to treat individuals who were unable to attend outpatient physiotherapy appointments,” Clare explains.
“During my two years in this role I came across many patients who expressed feelings of sadness and frustration - they felt their life had limited value because they had nothing left to offer society. All I kept thinking was that surely a life has value because of who a person is, not what they do.
“I noticed that I would spend the majority of my time with many lonely patients and this would manifest in two main ways. In some cases, it would be difficult to leave someone’s home after an assessment because they would talk continually. In others, my patients would weep, at times due to grief but at others due to the constant challenges they faced in everyday life,” Clare says.
She realised that in some instances, the situation could be improved by simply introducing more practical support to someone’s life, such as with washing, dressing or preparing meals. However, in other cases, it was a little more difficult, as the primary problem was caused by being housebound and no longer having the company of a long-term partner.
Clare understood that her role as a physiotherapist was important in helping all of her patients at the very least retain, if not improve, their mobility, movement and health. However, she constantly felt that some small changes could make a big difference and it was this conviction that pushed her in the direction of her PhD project.
“My experiences taught me two things, which I’m aware are rather obvious,” Clare says with a smile. “The first is that we need to find ways to help older people stay active and maintain independence. The second is that there are far too many isolated lonely older people. Surely there has to be way to bring these two aspects together and I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to focus on finding a solution to these problems.”
Clare’s research, which has involved extensive reading about the benefits of staying active in later life and visiting successful community-based group exercise programmes, has led her to the conclusion that creating exercise programmes specifically for older people would have material benefits in a number of ways.
There is unique knowledge to be gained from studying these programmes, and the lessons we learn may well be able to be applied to policy to help other older people engage and stay active for longer,” she enthuses.
And Clare is ambitious about what she wants to do with this research once it is complete. “I’d love to be able to present this information to commissioners and help the voice of active older adults be heard, and for their perspectives to influence policy decisions,” she states.
Throughout her research, Clare has come across numerous community-based exercise programmes that are incredibly popular and of a very high standard, but she is aware that these are far from widely available. “I wonder if even a small policy change in this area, such as by raising the profile of these groups and providing easier pathways for healthcare practitioners to refer patients, could increase the number of older people exercising locally,” she says.
“This may not have some huge international impact, but for the people who attend these classes, they seem to contribute significantly to their ability to maintain function and general wellbeing,” Clare adds.
Clare is clearly very passionate about her subject area, but her research hasn’t been her only focus since she started her PhD at BU. The Graduate School has helped her develop her skills and gave her the opportunity to teach. “I was given good support during this time and learned through the process that I actually really like teaching, and it’s definitely something I would consider as my career progresses,” she reveals.
She is also full of praise for how the Graduate School has supported her with various aspects of her doctorate, from helping her apply for relevant grants, to giving her the confidence to attend conferences. It has also facilitated meetings with several academics, which Clare says has allowed her to draw on “a wealth of knowledge and expertise”.
“The academics have been great about giving up their time to meet me, allowing me to share my research ideas and thinking, and then challenging me to develop my thinking.
“Doing a PhD takes you to the very edge of your knowledge in your area and then pushes you to keep going, something I’ve never experienced before. Doing this PhD has been by far the most mentally stimulating thing I’ve ever done,” she explains.
When asked what she’d like to do in the future, Clare has two main goals - one is to drive to Azerbaijan in a campervan, and the other is to continue her work to help older people lead more fulfilling lives as they age, impacting on as many people as possible. “I am both a practitioner and an academic, so I’d love a job that bridges that gap, helping to improve patients’ lives in real ways, but also to see that improvement multiplied on a scale that would help lots of individuals, rather than just a few,” she concludes.