Serving Seniors Effectively in the Library

The developed world is currently undergoing a serious demographic shift, in which the bulk of the population is over 50. Those born during the Baby Boom (~1946-1965) have new and increasing needs from their public libraries as their life circumstances change. (Honnold & Mesaros 2004 Indeed, many seniors are living longer than ever before, continue to work longer, and are increasingly visible in their communities. Thus, libraries must be prepared to deal with an increase in demand of services to this unique group. This report will focus on the following: the needs of seniors, how the library can meet those needs, why the library has a responsibility to provide special services to seniors, and how the library can market services to them.

Unique Needs of Seniors in the Library

Defining seniors as a homogenous group is inadequate. For one, differences between age groups in terms of information needs, interests, and experiences. For example, someone who is preparing to retire is experiencing a different period of ageing compared with someone who is in a later stage of ageing and may need assisted living services. Additionally, physical and mental abilities, education levels, life/cultural/socioeconomic experiences, and interests vary as widely among seniors as any other group of patrons. More specifically, seniors have a vested interest in areas of retirement, bereavement, active ageing, learning, managing finances, mental health, general health, and leisure activities. (Honnold & Mesaros 2004) Clearly, there is a calling for librarians to respond to these needs and develop collections accordingly.

While many seniors live relatively healthy and active lives, there are nonetheless many changes that occur in old age that affect the kinds of information they need. By visiting the library and taking advantage of specialised programming, seniors can remain informed, enjoy recreational activities, and make new friends. (Honnold & Mesaros 2004)  Studies have proven that this kind of socialisation can prevent certain types of dementia and depression brought on by isolation. However, if the library does not assess its potential physical barriers, then an entire segment of the senior population is left behind. For example, transportation can be a challenge for older seniors who no longer drive – how will they get to the library? Physical accessibility is surely another potential  barrier – ensuring that wheelchairs and walkers can fit between the stacks, that there are large print materials, and that washroom facilities are safe are all integral aspects of making seniors feel welcome in their public library. (Roberson 2001)

How the Public Library can meet Seniors’ Needs

Sketching out who the seniors are, where they live, and their cultural and educational backgrounds can give a good sense of direction of what types services are needed. Reference service is an excellent place to start when designing a plan to meet seniors’ information needs. In order to maintain the integrity of providing useful information and leisure for the all, the vast needs and interests of the elderly must be effectively studied, without resorting to stereotypical or homogenous treatment. (Van Fleet 1995)

Among the most important projects the library can take on, is networking with local agencies to increase and enhance their services to the elderly. These partnerships can increase referrals for needed services and enhancing community services databases. Providing materials in the collection that are up-to-date, large print, and relevant for the aging community is both useful and necessary to provide services to the elderly. (Van Fleet 1995) Additionally, teaching older people how to use computers and other types of technology can also help them satisfy their need for information. Considering that online health resources continue to grow, helping the elderly become computer and information literate ultimately gives them a sense of control over their lives through being knowledgeable about their health. (Xie & Bugg 2009) Perhaps most importantly is the issue of safety. Since governments are increasingly working towards making public buildings more accessible for the physically handicapped, libraries can work towards making spaces safer, more comfortable, and more easily accessible for seniors as well. (Honnold & Mesaros 2004)

Why the Public Library is Responsible for Providing Special Service to Seniors

As a public institution paid for by tax payers’ money, libraries have responsibility to provide tailored service to their patrons. Since seniors continue to make up a greater percentage of the population, public libraries should provide special services for the ageing in order to fulfil ALA and CLA values of service. Additionally, much library literature suggests a shift towards meeting community needs, instead of providing utilitarian space and materials. (Angell 2009 In order to remain as a public and democratic institution, libraries should be providing specialised service as part of outreach to the underserved, for example, homebound and/or frail seniors. Indeed, if the library is a public good, then it should respond adequately for the greatest number of people it can serve. (Angell 2009)

Interestingly, the ALA places a great deal of responsibility on itself for making contributions that can improve pressing issues that may affect their communities. (ALA 2004, Angell 2009) For example, as described above, many seniors experience isolation and depression as they lose spouses or their families move away. Not only can the library be a place for information, it can be a hub for older seniors to meet, make new friends, and enjoy recreational activities. (Honnold & Mesaros 2004)

Similarly, by reaching out to homebound seniors, the library can provide access to information to a group that tends to be underserved. Library bookmobile service to the elderly in nursing homes again fulfils an ALA core value of fair access to information for all. (ALA 2004, Angell 2009) Without specialised services for seniors, they can become isolated from their library quite easily.  Perhaps most importantly, though, is the emphasis on lifelong learning. Seniors are often eager to learn new skills and are interested in a vast array of topics. Their information needs differ from those of a child or young adult. In order to facilitate lifelong learning for seniors, libraries must adapt the ways in which they teach technologies so that the ageing can independently look for materials that interest them. (Van Fleet 1995)

Marketing Library Services to Seniors

Contacting local agencies that provide services to seniors is an effective way to attract seniors into the library. Places such as nursing homes, long-term care facilities, senior recreation centres, local religious institutions, and the like can all be helpful in attracting seniors to use library services specifically designed for them. Taking out advertising space on bulletin boards or newsletters can be cost-effective and reach a wider audience of older people. (Honnold & Mesaros 2004) Additionally, brochures or bookmarks that seniors can take at the aforementioned places can be an excellent reminder of what their pubic library can provide.

Conclusions

Senior citizens are a growing and vital part of their communities. They are repositories of memories and information of the past. As they continue to age, their information and recreational reading needs change. Public libraries should be prepared to serve this unique population with specialised services. As this report has demonstrated, public libraries have the ability and responsibility to provide high quality services to their ageing patrons as they would any other patron. Reaching out to seniors and bringing them into the library can be a rewarding experience for the librarian and user alike.

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