The Challenges and Opportunities of Serving America’s Elders

2009 Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture

By Kathleen Mayo

Thank you so much for this honor.  I’m delighted to have my name spoken in the same sentence with Jean Coleman’s.  Jean was a librarian who helped make outreach a vital part of library service and we are richer for her contributions. 

This is an exciting time for library services for older adults.  Not only is there a renewed interest in this area of service but we see libraries reinvigorating some tried and true practices as well as creating some new models.

The main reason for this new interest appears to be the aging of the Baby Boomer generation – that’s you and me – that has already started signing up for Social Security benefits.  Born between 1946 and 1964 we’ve exerted phenomenal impact at every age and we’re doing it again as the oldest of us are reaching retirement age. 

Boomers are only part of the picture, however.  We’re all living longer, getting better medical care, and we generally have a much better understanding of preventative care than the generations before us.  Certainly in our lifetimes we’ve seen both the perception and the reality of healthy aging.  For example:  Who knew that the entrenched practice of smoking would change so quickly.  This week I was visiting Fort Knox in Kentucky and asked my son about the little sheds outside of some barracks.  He told me they were the only places where soldiers were allowed to smoke.  Soon they’ll be phased out too.

Remember when nursing homes used to be filled with folks in their late 60s and 70s?  Now you rarely see anyone under 80 receiving skilled nursing care.  Of course, you also see that growth industry of care options ranging from home health care and independent living to every permutation of assisted living – with all the requisite licensing and specialization.   The emphasis is definitely on “aging in place,” the concept of living in one’s own home – wherever that may be – for as long as confidently and comfortably possible.

This is a good thing, but it’s also a little confusing, especially for institutions like libraries that take the concept of lifelong learning to heart.

Libraries are in a position to offer something that few other institutions are providing:  intellectual stimulation and forums for sharing thoughtful ideas.  We’ve seen that lifelong learning opportunities don’t have to stop when you retire.  In fact, lifelong learning becomes more important than ever when people have the luxury of more time. 
When I was first married I became part of an extended family group that met regularly for over 17 years.  Ellen, the oldest member of our group, lived in a senior apartment complex and she often bemoaned the fact that most of the people in her building parked their brains at the door when they moved in.  She had no patience for their interest in card games and chit chat when she wanted to discuss world affairs and personal philosophy.  Libraries can offer something for Ellen - and for all of her neighbors. 

We generally speak of seniors as three separate but overlapping groups.  Frail and inactive elders are generally the oldest adults and they’ve often outlived their friends.  They receive help at home, live in a residential facility, or live with family members.  Their health tends to be poor or declining and they often have a major disability.  Their library access is usually provided through various outreach services.  They sometimes visit libraries on their good days or with groups.

Active seniors usually live in their own homes or retirement communities.  Most are retired from their main careers and some work part time or volunteer.  In general, their health is good – certainly better than past generations of this age.   They tend to participate in community activities and drive or use public transportation.  Active seniors are often regular library patrons who participate in programs and volunteer or join library Friends groups.

Most people in the Baby Boomer generation are still working and, thanks to the recession, will be working longer than they originally planned.  Nonetheless, they are planning for retirement.  Many of them are interested in encore careers – often called paid or volunteer work with personal meaning and a social purpose. This is meaningful, post-retirement work for experienced workers.  Their health is good and they are usually health conscious.  In fact, they plan to live forever.  Boomers are active in the community at many levels.  They use technology of all types and, importantly, many of them are re-discovering libraries. 

Thinking of people as a broad age group can be misleading.  In fact, they are identified more by their interests and abilities than their ages.  The same holds true for elders. 

I’d like to propose that libraries take a new look at the services they provide for older adults.   It’s time to develop new models for service on a scale that parallels what we do with children, teens, and adults.  If we do it right, it will reflect the needs of our local community, not just copy a well publicized  program from another library. 

But, these services will have a number of common ingredients.  In fact, I’m suggesting 12 specific elements that have proven to be hallmarks of success.    They can be applied to current operations as well as to the planning process we use for the future.

1.  Our first challenge is to listen to the voices of seniors in all aspects of our planning, implementation, and evaluation of services.  If we’ve learned anything from the success of Teen Advisory Groups in this country, it should be the importance of having involvement from our customers in developing and operating services.  How does this work?  Like the teen groups, advisory groups work well and we’re already using them with grant projects and other activities.  There are also informal focus groups (invite people to drop in and talk about their library), surveys, program evaluations, community forums, and interactions that get people talking about their interests and activities and how they can intersect with libraries.  Who do you want to include?  People who care.  People with ideas.  People who complain.  (Complainers value libraries enough to want improvements.)  People who can make things happen.  Also include caregivers and the folks who provide services in your communities. 

2.  The next ingredient involves networking with agencies and organizations of and for older persons.   These players can help us better understand our own community and how the library can offer meaningful services, support existing programs, and create new coalitions.  Our community networks help us to identify potential partnerships, co-sponsors for key activities, referrals for library and senior services, promotional activities, and grant partners.   Some of these groups are obvious like the local Area Agency on Aging (the agency that uses Older Americans Act money to provide key services).  Others are less so.  University health & gerontology programs, grandparents raising grandchildren groups, veterans services, and hospice programs are just a few to consider.  

3.  Each library needs some way to reach people who can’t get to a library and their caregivers.  These individuals have been our customers for years and value libraries in their lives.   We don’t want to ignore them now when they have difficulty getting to a library.   Libraries have developed some effective ways to reach people who are “aging in place.”  There are great service models available and some libraries provide more than one. 

  • Books-by-Mail generally provides a range of materials to individuals and their caregivers.  Customers can access it by phone, email, and mail and libraries send out their requests in pre-printed bags.   Libraries pay postage one way or both ways and can take advantage of free matter postal provisions for people who have disabling conditions that prevent them from using standard print.
  • Home Delivery services use staff or volunteers to deliver materials to individual homes on a regular schedule.  This approach includes the advantage of in-person connections.
  • Mobile Service takes a vehicle to community stops where customers can access a collection of materials chosen for specific locations and individuals.  The vehicles are often lower to the ground for easy access.
  • Telephone Reference is often promoted to older adults who need information assistance from the library. 

The other group of seniors who have difficulty using a library is people who live in residential facilities, attend adult day care, or use congregate meal programs. 

Some libraries make regularly scheduled visits to these programs with carts full of materials.  Often called “lobby stops,” these visits usually involve taking an assortment of print and non-print materials to a central location at the facility and/or utilizing carts going room to room.   

  • Deposit collections of popular large print and special request materials often check out for several months.  At a pre-determined time they are swapped out for a new collection.  Staff members at facilities are then responsible for doing internal check outs and gathering requests. 
  • Libraries generally work with the Activity Coordinators at these programs and support their programming efforts with library materials.  Library sponsored training for activity staff can take this bond a step further and introduce them to using a variety of programming resources.
  • Library-delivered programs are a staple for many libraries that rely on both staff and volunteers to reach these seniors.  Programs cover everything from book and film discussions to readers’ theater, memoir writing, People and Stories programs, and reminiscence-based activities.

4.  The next element involves developing challenging and stimulating opportunities for volunteers.  It’s time to expand our vision of the role that volunteers can play in our libraries.  While we will always need people to shelve materials and other basic work, we have not always looked for volunteers to help with projects that need higher level skills.  This is a good time to tap into the needs of Boomers, especially, as they look for encore careers and volunteer work that maximizes their skills and helps them give back to their communities.

Some good examples of volunteer jobs include serving as conversation partners for ESL learners, computer coaches and technology instructors, volunteer coordinators, facilitators for book discussion groups and senior programs, and web page information gatherers.

5. It’s important to develop popular collections selected with older adults in mind. 

While large print is nothing new, it is still an important part of any public library collection.   If you came to yesterday’s program, you heard about the renewed interest in large print from Boomers and the new responses from publishers who are moving towards large print on demand. 

  • Seniors want access to music collections that reflect their varied interests.   It’s not enough to have Frank Sinatra and old radio show recordings, people want a broad selection that includes world music, opera and classical performances, musicals, and rock, gospel, and country.
  • Audiobooks are popular fare for older adults who want to listen to their reading in CD or downloadable formats.  We’ll be seeing more interest in Talking Books (from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped) now that they are shifting from audiocassettes to digital format.
  • Seniors enjoy watching a wide variety of films on DVD including classic movies and TV shows.   Many libraries have also invested in descriptive DVDs (feature films with a voice-over narration that describes the action and images on the screen) for persons with blindness and low vision.
  • Book discussion kits are popular for use wherever groups of seniors get together.  They usually include 10-20 copies of a title in both print and audio formats along with suggested discussion questions.  

Reminiscence-based programming kits from BiFolkal Productions have been a staple in many libraries and are often loaned to senior facilities, faith-based organizations, and other groups offering services for older adults.  Many libraries have used the BiFolkal model to create their own kits around local and regional themes.   Eldersong Publications and other ventures are sources for programming materials that resonate with many older adults. 

6.  Libraries have a role to play in providing technology training through sponsoring, co-sponsoring, or promoting other community training activities available at senior centers, adult education programs, residential communities, and wellness sites. 

Seniors are eager to get basic through advanced instruction on all aspects of computer use, digital photography, Internet use, and social networking.  A good place to start is often with the library’s own web site and electronic resources. 

  • Tech boot camps are a popular way to help customers learn to use today’s personal technology devices such as cell phones, TV remotes, smart phones, and GPS units.   These often work best as intergenerational programs using savvy teens as one-on-one instructors.
  • Libraries have invested in assistive technology to help individuals to access their buildings, collections, and services. 
  • Library sponsored accessibility fairs and senior expos help introduce these products to our customers.  My own library, the Lee County Library System, has a loaner collection of assistive devices for persons with visual, hearing, and mobility disabilities.  Customers borrow the devices for up to two week to try them out in their homes and help them to make good decisions when they are ready to purchase items.  

7.  Libraries can offer programs and activities of particular interest to people in this age group.  However, I encourage you to avoid labeling them as senior programs.   Let the program’s time, day, and topic help people decide whether to attend.

  • Memoir and journal writing sessions offer customers an important outlet for sharing their personal and family histories.  Libraries often engage in oral history programs to gather information about the local community and to instruct individuals in the interviewing skills to use with their own projects.
  • Character portrayals are popular library programs where actors depict the lives of famous people such as Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart or American presidents and first ladies.
  • The ALA Public Programs Office has introduced many libraries to the joys of programming through their Let’s Talk About It series on various literacy themes, programming workshops, and partnerships with humanities organizations at the state and national level.  These programs often have great participation from older adults.
  • Libraries are effective when they focus on local history and culture.  Whether it’s a program on south Florida gardening or hurricane preparation in my community or one that highlights your local history and traditions, these will generate interest and participation.
  • Retired adults often look to the library to learn new skills and broaden their interest on topics as diverse as bee keeping, local gardening practices, cooking for one or two, crafts of all types, genealogy, remodeling for accessible homes, etc.
  • Book and film discussion groups are a staple for most libraries and draw large numbers of older adults.  Short story discussions are popular in many settings and use formats such as the People and Stories program and the Great Books’ short story omnibus. 
  • With a renewed interest in civic engagement, libraries are great places for community forums on key topics of local and national interest such as healthcare reform, the environmental  impact of local growth,  and transportation needs.  Seniors have a vested interest in these and other issues that speak to their futures.
  • Libraries have discovered that gaming activities can appeal to all ages and are offering everything from board games to Wii fitness and interactive computer games.  This is proving to be a real opportunity for intergenerational connections.
  • Music is one of the most accessible ways to reach older adults.  From live performances of opera to high school jazz groups and the music of their generation, live music is an important way to reach people.  Seniors are also interested in music appreciation seminars and group instruction on musical instruments. 

8.  Libraries need to aim for optimum accessibility for their buildings using the principles of universal design. 
o Older adults often appreciate well designed parking areas and entryways that help them get into your building.  Keep your accessible parking as close to the entrance as possible and utilize electric doors.

  • Book drops that are accessible from cars were the most requested feature by people with disabilities who completed our first ADA survey in the early 90s.  If they’re just coming by to return items, people didn’t want to have to park and go inside.
  • Once inside, make sure that customers find clear, well-placed signage, wide aisles, chairs with easy access, and great lighting.  I often stop customers to ask if they find the library accessible and easy to use.  Their responses can be enlightening and lead you to identify problem areas.
  • While ADA requires libraries to offer some basic assistive technology, there are additional devices and features that make the library more useful for everyone.  Offering people with low vision an assortment of hand-held and lighted magnifiers as well as a closed circuit TV magnifier (CCTV) is as important as having a personal listening device (such as a PockeTalker) for customers who are hard of hearing.
  • Many libraries offer wheelchairs or scooters for their customers who find a trek around the library more than they can handle comfortably. 
  • With hearing loss being the most common disability among older adults, libraries need to invest in assistive listening systems (audioloops and FM systems) for their meeting rooms in addition to good audio systems.  (Remind staff to always use a microphone to make sure that everyone can hear.)
  • I hope that every library will try out CART this year for some of their large programs.  CART stands for Communication Access Realtime Translation and uses a technician (often a court reporter) to type the presentation onto a large screen next to the speakers.  

9.  Older adults deserve a great web page dedicated to their interests.  This page can provide a doorway to the services in your community as well as to state and national organizations.  Check out Hennepin County Library’s 55+ site and Cleveland Public Library’s SeniorsConnect project (a joint effort with United Way) that are two good examples of online senior outreach.   Use your page to introduce seniors to social networking sites especially for them or set up a blog to share information like the one from the Pasco County (FL) Public Library.  Most importantly, make sure that customers can find information about your library’s senior services – and include online applications and newsletters.

10.  Consider a senior space in your library.  Allan Kleiman has been active in promoting this concept and I hope that you got to attend his program on Saturday.  This space can be of most any size as long as it is attractive, inviting, and easily accessible for customers to come and go.  Allan stresses the importance of using movable furnishings, including display/face out shelving on wheels to better promote the collection.    Comfortable seating that’s easy to get up from and tables with wheels make this a flexible area that customers can arrange for different purposes.  You’ll want to move the large print materials close by and include public computers, a gaming/program space, and a notice board to highlight volunteer opportunities and community events.

11.  Libraries need to promote these senior services as well as their partners’ activities.

  • Basic promotional tools are attractive library publications and flyers printed in large type with clear color contrast.  Place them in your libraries and all types of community settings.
  • Write articles for local publications, including senior magazines and the newsletters from your senior communities and community partners.
  • Make presentations to civic, social, and faith-based groups that reach out to older adults.  Remind them that the library is there for the entire family and welcome them to discover what’s new for older adults, too.
  • Use your web site to highlight programs and services and ask your partners to create links to your site.
  • Participate in community events such as health fairs and senior expos with your library table or tent.  

12.  Finally, to make all of this happen, you need staff responsible for the customers in this age group.  This staff member(s)’s role will involve planning and implementing your programs, services, and collection development – in concert with your older adult advisors.   S/he will work with your community partners and represent the library on community coalitions.  While this can start as a part time responsibility, it should be clearly delineated in performance objectives.   At the Lee County Library System, we took this a step further and created an additional responsibility for a staff member at each library:  Senior Outreach Liaison.  Liaisons work with the activity coordinators from local senior facilities to help them find library materials to use for programs on different themes.    

This all might sound like a tall order, but it’s nothing more than what we do for the younger people that we serve.   Libraries were there when these older adults got their first library card, needed help with school projects, took their children to story hours, and looked for help with career advice and parenting.  Now we can be there as they chart the rest of their lives. 

There are some people and organizations that we need to recognize for their contributions to library service for older adults.  Margaret Monroe and Bessie Moore set the stage for library service on a national scale, creating a role for libraries with the White House Conferences on Aging, writing about and documenting outstanding services, and inspiring a generation of library school students.  There are some key people who are still contributing:

  • Lynne Martin-Erickson and Kathryn Leide introduced many of us to reminiscence-based programming with their BiFolkal kits.  These are wonderful, workable models that librarians have used to create local examples.
  • Rhea Rubin wrote about the lives of older adults in our literature and helped libraries to develop accessible services.
  • Barbara Mates helped make assistive and adaptive technology understandable and explained how they should work in libraries.
  • Like many of us, Allan Kleiman spent years developing services for older adults.  But Allan has done something more.  He’s been a one-man band inspiring librarians around the country to take a fresh look at serving older adults.
  • Diantha Schull and Libraries for the Future appeared at a key time to challenge libraries to create new models for serving Boomers and active older adults.  LFF recently ceased operation but the products of that process continue today.
  • We salute the California State Library’s Transforming Life After 50 initiative that has offered training and grant support for innovative programs – and shared that information on their web site.
    Importantly, our own Satia Orange has created forums for sharing information within OLOS, represented library interests with national  organizations in the aging field, and initiated the library toolkit that will help libraries to initiate and expand their services for older adults. 

And, finally, I’d like to thank each of you for recognizing the importance of serving your older adults and doing it day in and day out.  You are the real heroes. 

About Kathleen Mayo

Kathy Mayo has spent the last 30+ years working in the area of library outreach and special services.  A native Floridian, she has degrees in Art Education and Library Science from Florida State University.  Kathy developed an exemplary library program for patients and staff at Florida State Hospital, a large state mental health facility.  As a library consultant at the State Library of Florida she spent 11 years working with library programs in Florida’s correctional, mental health, and developmental disabilities facilities as well as with services for persons with disabilities. 

Since 1989, she has managed Outreach Services for the Lee County Library System that is headquartered in Fort Myers.  These services include Assistive Technology, Bookmobile, Books-by-Mail, Literacy/ESL, Senior Outreach, and Talking Books.  These programs won the 1997 ASCLA/National Organization for Disabilities Award and the 1995 Outstanding Social Service – Education award from the Community Coordinating Council.  Kathy was the 1996 Citizen of the Year for the SW Florida section of NASW and was the first recipient of the Maria Chavez-Hernandez “Libraries Change People’s Lives Award” from the Florida Library Association in 2008.  Kathy has been an ALA member since 1974 and active in ASCLA, PLA, and OLOS.