Most library programming, it seems, is geared to children and youth. But more and more libraries are adopting innovative programs for older adults. In many cases, the impetus comes from librarians frustrated with the lack of programs suitable for their aging parents.
Baby boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964, are now between 54 and 72 years of age. They comprise about a quarter of the US population.
People of earlier generations who reached their middle 60s were, by reputation anyway, often retired, sedentary, or even homebound. Libraries have long served this population with large-print books, delivery of library materials to the homebound, outreaches to senior centers, and regularly scheduled movies at the library.
Those programs are still necessary, but not enough.
The King County Library System in Washington state has an older adult specialist on its staff, Wendy Pender. She looks for partnership from all other area organizations that serve seniors. That way no one has to start anything from scratch if someone else in the area has already developed.
Pender also keeps her eye on new services for children and youth to see if they suggest ideas she can use. Much of the same philosophical considerations apply to both ends of a person’s life. Among other services, the library offers workshops like Fraud Watch. Life Reimagined and other content from AARP.
Baby boomers and their elders present two very different challenges to libraries. Many are more active, affluent, and tech-savvy than older people used to be. Many others need assisted living, nursing facilities, or memory facilities. Many newer library services for seniors are aimed specifically at those who suffer from dementia.
They are free for anyone to use. They give libraries an opportunity to offer professionally designed classes to anyone from kindergarteners to seniors.
Seniors flock to classes, both in person and online, because they want to learn new things. Lifelong learning does not include required courses or tests, so people can follow their interests. Retired people have time to take such courses that they didn’t have when they were in the workforce.
They may also have physical limitations, such as declining eyesight, hearing, or mobility. When libraries pitch various classes to seniors, therefore, they must take not only patrons’ interests into account, but also their needs for accessible hardware and software. Using teleconferencing software, these courses can not only satisfy seniors’ intellectual curiosity, but also provide opportunities to socialize.
About two dozen libraries from coast to coast partner with Lifetime Arts, which specifically provides arts education for seniors. Some libraries also engage older adults in story-telling. Hearing and telling stories can evoke good memories. And if the library archives stories, it adds to its oral history collection.
For homebound patrons, it’s no longer enough just to deliver materials to them. Libraries can offer not only online courses, but also virtual tours. Using technology, people can tour anything from local attractions to tourist destinations worldwide and experience them almost as if they were there.
Seniors often fall victim to various scams from identity theft to phony prize schemes. The Federal Trade Commission has created a program called Pass It On. Its site provides articles, presentations, videos, and activities that allow people to help protect people they know from scammers. Libraries can easily build programs around these materials.
Cutting edge technology and older adults
Some libraries are using virtual reality to allow patrons to visit places and see and hear what they could never experience otherwise.
Libraries need only the proper equipment, lending policies, and subscriptions to appropriate content.
The Brooklyn Public Library System offers the “Library Lanes Bowling League.” Several of its branches offer virtual bowling using a Microsoft Xbox One. Teams at one branch compete against other branches. In fact, some senior centers also offer participate in the league.
The program is aimed at seniors but does not limit participation to them. Therefore, many seniors in Brooklyn prefer to bowl at the library instead of a senior center simply because it attracts people of all ages, and therefore expands their social life.
Libraries are beginning to offer fall-preventions exercise classes, tai chi, yoga, dancing, walking, or even running for seniors.
Virtual reality can especially help dementia patients reconnect with their favorite music or other memories. That, in turn, can help them reconnect with the people present with them.
Tysha Shay, a librarian in Springfield, Missouri, used to take books to her grandmother, who suffered dementia, and share them with her. Sometimes a poem would trigger a memory and provide some moments of clarity.
The library had no program for people with dementia, so Shay decided to start a nursing home outreach, called Stories for Life. She and librarians at other branches visit nursing homes every month. They plan programs around a theme, such as local history, plants, or childhood games. A bag of marbles once encouraged nonverbal people to push their wheelchairs to the table and ask for the chance to show off their skills.
Mary Beth Riedner of the Gail Borden Library in Elgin, Illinois likewise noticed a lack of help from the library when her husband developed early-onset Alzheimer’s. Not only did the Borden Library have no suitable program, neither Riedner find one at any other American library. Denmark and the UK had some she could use as models.
She developed Tales and Travel, which uses stories, music, and visual arts to immerse patients’ imaginations in some destination. It has grown to more than 30 “excursions.” Librarians take the stories and materials to nursing homes. The library has also compiled “carry-on bags.” Family caregivers can check them out like any other library materials.
Riedner points out that these programs can help people answer the awkward questions of what to do or say when they visit relatives or friends with Alzheimer’s.
A looming threat
These library services for seniors, especially those for dementia patients, can be expensive. At least one library has had to abandon its outreach when its budget was cut. At a time when libraries are looking for new ways to serve the community, the public needs to advocate for libraries and adequate funding.
Governments don’t cut budgets because people don’t use libraries as much anymore. People use libraries less because governments cut the budgets.
Bringing virtual reality to our senior patrons / Nick Tanzi, Public Libraries Online. September 5, 2017
Libraries offer Alzheimer’s activities for senior living / Paula Spencer Scott. Caring.com
Senior fitness programs at the library / Noah Lenstra, Public Libraries Online. August 21, 2017
Senior partners | Innovation / April Witteveen, Library Journal. June 13, 2017