November 19, 2017

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Aging in the 21st Century

As the vocal baby boom generation gets older, aging itself has become a growing topic of conversation. Libraries—and their raisons d’être—are not immune from this fundamental shift.

thorndike_aginginthe21stcentury_600pxLibraries are—simultaneously—repositories of knowledge and agents of social and economic change. This is not a paradox; by definition, meaningful change requires action by knowledgeable citizens. In many communities, this is manifest in services for (among many others) immigrants, the homeless, the unemployed, and of course older individuals and their social and political groups.

This last category is notable—and not only for its members’ refusal to label themselves as “old” or “elderly.” According to Pew Research, the proportion of U.S. citizens 65 and older is expected to pass 21% by 2050. That shift will be driven by the numerous (and vocal) “baby boom” generation—those born between 1946 and 1964. As older citizens’ self-perceptions change, libraries are formulating new ways to serve their needs.

Outreach Programs

Some of these programs are eminently practical. We contacted Wendy Pender, Older Adults Project Specialist, and Jeff Kempe, Adult Services Coordinator, for the King County Library System (KCLS) in Washington State, to get some examples.

In going through the many KCLS-facilitated programs, notably absent were verbal identifiers that would tend to categorize programs as “for seniors only.” While some programs’ subject matter infers an older constituency, many are promoted as broadly inclusive. “People want to know that we have programs about issues that matter to them, and will help them face challenges in their lives,” Kempe said, “but if we indicate that something is ‘for seniors,’ it can be off-putting, not just for younger members but for people who don’t care for that label.”

KCLS partners with many organizations, including AARP, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Social Security Administration, and Washington’s Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors (SHIBA), to create joint outreach programs on fraud and identity theft, financial planning, insurance, health benefits programs, and much more. The system’s many facilities are used for information seminars and one-on-one consultations.

The libraries’ physical facilities are not the only venue for these programs. Some presentations are live streamed to multiple locations, and the organization takes pains to hold events at older adult communities and other non-library community centers. Virtual meetings are becoming more commonplace. A recent “Telephone Town Hall” on Medicare and Social Security included over 2,000 over-50 library cardholder participants, 300 of whom submitted questions during the session. “In polls taken during the call, 87% said they felt more connected to the library,” Pender said. “The same percentage said they had learned about a new service that the library offered.”

Access to Materials

Outreach programs aside, the predominant value of a library is its collection. Increasingly, libraries are taking proactive measures to improve collection access to older members. One such effort is the use of large print editions. This may seem like a traditional approach. However, libraries and publishers are making it anything but traditional.

Unlike their antecedents from the 1960s, large print can be similar visually to their “normal” counterparts. Type size, typically 16- to 18-point, is augmented by differences in leading, white space usage, and quality of paper to produce volumes of similar weight and dimensions. Cover art is typically identical across formats, which benefits library promotional displays—now increasingly in higher traffic areas, for the benefit of patrons of all ages.

Title selection for large print includes The New York Times and other bestseller lists, with certain genres (such as romance, mystery, and thrillers) having sustained popularity among older readers. Pender noted that she would like to see more nonfiction titles in large print.

As with all library services, KCLS does not promote large print specifically to older patrons. “We treat large print like any other format,” Pender said. “We don’t say, ‘Hey, if you’re old, look over here.’ We just provide it as a service that’s convenient to everyone—like chairs with arms, or good lighting. Who wouldn’t like that?”

As mentioned in a previous article, e-books emulate some of the attributes of large print. However, the ability to adjust font sizes in e-books may be offset by potential medical issues, deficits in cognition, and technical barriers. Many libraries, including KCLS, offer impressive support for e-reader use—including assistance via telephone. However, a large percentage of patrons will simply prefer the tactile experience of print—large or otherwise.

Opportunities & Aspirations

Older patrons’ preference for print does not mean their wholesale rejection of technology. Library services and support are typically focused on e-reading and system use. However, it can also extend to general tech literacy, such as KCLS’ classes on mobile phone photography.

Computer literacy is also instrumental within another, typical library initiative: career counseling and planning. Although applicable to all ages and economic situations, vocational re-invention appears to be a compelling service for older patrons in transition. Career-oriented events can be at the library or at another location such as a community center.

KCLS programs also facilitate a wide swath of aspirational and multi-generational programs, including storytelling, display and performance art, as well as the more traditional social book discussion group. Pender and Kempe were quick to point out that these programs were aimed at all adults, not “older” patrons, per se.

The Art of Redefinition

Clearly, a growing number of people in the 65+ group are considering their age not as a final curtain, but as the opening of a new act. While support programs for coping with limitations are essential, forward-looking programs for personal, economic, and societal growth will increase. As knowledge-based, social institutions, public libraries are uniquely positioned to offer the space and resources needed to foster a redefined, more community-inclusive view of “later life.”


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