Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


Lessons Learned from Writing a Senior Services Plan

By Carolyn Caywood, Bayside & Special Services Librarian at City of Virginia Beach

Because of its military bases, the Virginia Beach population has been younger than average, but the leading edge of the Baby Boom will nearly double the number of residents over 55.  That's why three years ago I was given the job of writing a Senior Services Plan for the Virginia Beach Public Library.  The charge: “Create a service plan for seniors to address the special needs of this group” left the process wide open.  Some of what we did worked well while I caution against other choices.  I am sharing both in the hope that more libraries will begin planning for the “silver tsunami” and learn from our experience.

I asked six people to become a team to outline the plan.  Members were demographically diverse and each had an interest in library service to older adults.  They were both professionals and paraprofessionals and one was an outside expert from SeniorNavigator.  However, no member was older than a Baby Boomer, which was a definite mistake.  While we were working, a City Council member launched a citizen planning group of older adults that was very effective in setting up a rural Senior Center.

The team met for a full day with a facilitator who helped us create a context map and brainstorm actions.  Unfortunately, we had to change rooms twice, and we learned that being in a small space can inhibit creativity by keeping ideas small too.  We had some difficulty defining the target population and settled for definitions that focused more on life events than on age.

Another choice I would change in retrospect is that we did our brainstorming before doing research.  We were ignorant of our ignorance!  As a result, we approached the idea of senior services as rescuers on the needs that seniors have that we should meet.   We failed to think of seniors as people with immense capacities that can contribute to the good of the community.

We clumped our brainstormed ideas into these areas: programs, outreach, marketing, facilities, partnerships, collections, engagement in the community, advocacy, and technology interfaces.  We prioritized them in the order I've listed them.  Each team member then wrote up actions for an area.

Since one member was not a city employee, she could not access the online folders that the city provides for teams, so we used Pbwiki to share documents.  You can see our work at https://vbplseniors.pbwiki.com – use “lssp” as the key for access.  Unfortunately, the team never really got the hang of editing wiki-style and I was the only one to post documents.  I remain convinced that a wiki is a great team tool, but don't underestimate the training needed to use it effectively.

As I pulled the plan together, I kept discovering more research and opportunities to learn.  It was hard to stop adding to the plan.  There is a bibliography on the wiki, but I want to highlight a few exceptional resources.  Gene Cohen's books and his Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, http://www.gwumc.edu/cahh/ brought a much-needed positive focus to our plan.  I was fortunate to participate in the free online conference Creating Aging Friendly Communities and the Libraries for the Future Lifelong Access Libraries Institute, both of which have ceased.  If you encounter such an opportunity, don't let it get away!

The most helpful library service resource I found was “Older Adults and Reader Advisory” by Alicia Ahlvers in Reference and User Services Quarterly, Vol. 45, #4, Summer, 06, p. 305-312.  Ahlvers explores the differences between generations and how that impacts library use.  Helpful background reading for understanding these differences is Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe (Morrow, 1990)

We learned, in the course of writing the plan, to keep watch on the 45 to 54 age cohort because they will become the newest older adults and unless we plan for them, we'll always be behind.  Life after 55 will not be the same as in the past.  Boomers are better educated, more diverse, and more likely to live through their 70s than any previous generation of older adults.  Life for older adults can be a time of creativity, wisdom, and community-building, and libraries are uniquely qualified to facilitate these positive aspects of aging.  But Boomers will not read or use libraries in the same patterns that their parents did.

Experts predict that most Boomers will choose to age in place rather than move away to a community of retirees.  This means they will drive public policy decisions about land use, transportation, and tax revenues.  We must engage them in support of government services rather than in competition with other service needs.  Another prediction is that Boomers will continue to work in some capacity in their retirement years.  We will need to adapt our expectations of volunteering and part time jobs to take advantage of this.  The alternative is that tax revenues will drop as Boomers retire while demands on government services will rise, leaving little money for libraries.  And many Boomers will live in or near poverty.

What we have learned led us to this vision: The Virginia Beach Public Library is a transformational part of the lives of older adults as they balance time and money to pursue a healthy, secure and meaningful life, engage in purposeful and challenging activities, and serve as a source of wisdom and perspective for the community.

Our goals for the plan are:

  1. To retain and increase library usage as Boomers transition into their senior years by adapting library services to their changing needs, resulting in more visits.
  2. To employ skilled and educated retirement-age workers who are interested in contributing to the library.
  3. To cultivate supporters and advocates for library services among older adults, resulting in more voter support.
  4. To assist City government to address the public policy issues of aging in an informed, organized and efficient manner.

The actions we have proposed require time, attention and commitment more than expenditures.  We are now using an advisory group of older adults as a sounding-board to evaluate proposed programs.  We now have a specialist position at my branch where we are the pilot for new services.  In time, all this will feed into a revised plan that will be more grounded in experience.

--Carolyn Caywood is the Librarian at Bayside & Special Services Library, a combined public branch and subregional library for the blind.