March 16, 2018

Senior Partners | Innovation

A GOLDEN AGE FOR LIBRARY USAGE (Clockwise from top l.): Patrons participate
in a TimeSlips program at Arapahoe Libraries, CO; the library’s senior fairs
offer a variety of useful literature; packets are prepared for disabled patrons
unable to come to the library; Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) Library Lanes virtual bowling leagues “strike” a chord with these players; and the
BPL programs for seniors can be a scream

As baby boomers retire, libraries reinvent services to older adults

Serving senior citizens has long been a core mission for libraries. Traditionally, these services were often focused on delivering materials to the homebound, yet today’s active and often tech-savvy elders want different things, driving libraries to rethink their paradigm for service to older adults. And even for those who can’t get to the library, the creative application of innovative technology is delivering education, imagination, and human connection as well as books.

“AARP membership opens at age 50,” muses Wendy Pender, older adult program specialist for the King County Library System (KCLS), WA. As part of the 50-plus age bracket herself, Pender, who doesn’t think of herself as a “senior,” saw the chance to bring new and exciting ­opportunities to this quickly growing demographic. “­Aging baby boomers are swelling the senior population,” Amy Alessio, librarian with the Schaumburg Township District Library, IL, notes. “The cutting of state budgets and personal benefits force them to find new places to meet their needs and entertainments.” Enter creative programming and outreach services for older adults at libraries across the country.

Lifelong learning

Pender believes that offering more options for older adults is “a recognition that the public library is a primary landscape for lifelong learning…. Our age group has the gift of time, which can be of both personal and community benefit.” Pender, who requested that her position be established two years ago when KCLS was in the midst of a personnel restructure, started her program slate with a call to AARP. In partnership with the organization, she offered 35 of AARP’s Fraud Watch and Life Reimagined workshops. “Life now isn’t just about vacations [for older adults],” she says. “[There are] many productive years ahead of us.”

A FRESH PERSPECTIVE One of King County Library System’s popular senior initiatives is its
Arts & Technology Fest, which allows patrons
a different view of things

In spring 2017, April Colosimo, liaison librarian at ­McGill University in Montreal, presented at the Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference on open educational resources (OERs) for university-based retirement communities. While the university offers continuing education courses geared toward retired adults through its Community for Lifelong Learning program, which includes access to the academic library’s physical and digital collections, Montreal winters proved to be a significant barrier to attending classes and visiting the library. “Older [individuals] who found themselves unable to leave home were missing opportunities,” ­Colosimo discovered. She was approached with the question of “what [the older students] could do in the winter, from home.” It was a lightbulb moment, she says.

Colosimo developed an in-person class that takes place “in good weather” on OERs such as massive open online course platforms (MOOCs) and social media apps. The ten-hour course runs over five weeks and includes homework focusing on discovery and experimentation with the MOOCs and apps covered in class. “This is a highly educated and motivated audience,” Colosimo notes. “They already have tech skills but are having trouble filling their educational desires.” She’s heard from students who go on to take OER classes on astrophysics and other high-level topics, but they are also curious about Snapchat and hashtags. “They are learning for learning’s sake right now; they know there’s no test.”

Part of what she teaches is how to evaluate the user experience: “Can you play a video at half time; are there closed captions; can you change text color?” are a few of the questions she includes in her teaching strategy. Colosimo encourages academic librarians to seek out occasions such as this one and use other departments or organizations on campus that may already market to older adults to help promote programs and resources. “These folks are so ­eager,” she says.

Tech tools

The Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) is committed to reducing barriers to tech access and knowledge for seniors. Taina Evans, coordinator of the older adult services department, helped to develop “a systemwide Never Too Late To Learn curriculum to provide free technology classes, workshops, and hands-on personalized assistance to patrons,” which resulted in 244 sessions with nearly 1,100 attendees last year. The programs are all designed to cater to adults ages 50 and up, paying attention to physical limitations in vision, hearing, and mobility that could prove frustrating in a learning environment. Classes focus on computer basics, online privacy and security, library resources, social media, and accessibility features of both the hardware and software used. “We try to engage with patrons from the beginning to gauge the level and type of assistance they will need…. If they are not engaged, they won’t stick around.”

BPL also conducts remote access programs through teleconference and online courses; book discussion groups, technology classes, creative aging curricula, and virtual tours of the Central Library are part of the menu of services that cater to the homebound library patron. In partnership with DOROT, “a nonprofit organization whose goal is to alleviate social isolation and provide concrete services to older adults,” BPL hosts University Without Walls, a teleconference or online program that “allows patrons to learn a new art form, with free art supplies [and] participation in discussion groups, and make new friends from the comfort of their homes,” Evans tells LJ.

Library Lanes, a virtual bowling league now offered at 20 of BPL’s branches, was introduced two years ago and “has been one of the library’s fastest-growing programs,” says ­Evans. Using an Xbox One video game system, bowlers meet each week to practice for “monthly tournaments to determine branch bragging rights. It’s an amazing way for older adults to form friendships, get exercise, and gain familiarity with gaming technology.” Regarding the mood, Evans notes that “the seniors are competitive; they come to play!”

The power of story

Bridging the gap between education and personal storytelling, KCLS’s series of Wisdom Cafés offers the possibility for “meaningful dialog around universal issues related to aging,” according to Pender. The 2016 pilot year saw 60 cafés in 20 locations, including library branches, community meeting places, and assisted-living facilities. Topics such as “the surprises of aging, gratitude, and legacy” inspired participants to “share one’s story” while building community and finding value in their experiences, says Pender. Some 95 percent of participants had met at least two new people, and 35 percent were first-time attendees for KCLS programming. One of the most common comments on post-activity surveys was, “I’m not alone.” This was “repeated over and over, regardless of topic,” Pender tells LJ.

BPL is collecting stories of older area residents in its grant-funded Our Streets, Our Stories oral history project. Evans says that this initiative, which is run in partnership with her department, outreach services, and the library’s Brooklyn Collection, “seeks to explore the Brooklyn that is and the Brooklyn that was, from the perspective of the people who live here.” Older adults can make appointments for informal interviews “conducted within BPL branches and off-site locations,” according to Evans.

Schaumburg’s Alessio has found a programming niche offering “humorous nostalgia talks” at local libraries. She shares information, generally themed around vintage food and crafts, and provides hands-on activities with a “mostly senior” audience. “These workshops include evenings from the history of holiday treats to Desserts by the Decades to classes on how to do macramé, string art, and other older craft trends,” Alessio tells LJ. “Many sit quietly, in a kind of memory phase, when they stop listening and start to remember good times and meals from their past. This is my goal for the audience. I want to invoke nice memories.”

Delight is in the details

Fines and fees are a barrier for many public library customers, so the Normal Public Library, IL, employs a fine-free card for customers ages 60 and over who may be on a fixed income. The policy has been in place for more than 30 years, says John Fischer, adult services and circulation manager. “The philosophy is that seniors who are retired have worked hard all of their life, were longtime customers, and it was something we could do for them.”

KCLS’s Pender’s experience working with AARP encouraged her to seek out any and all senior-serving organizations in her area. “Amplify what is already going on in your community,” she says. “We don’t have to invent something new.” She also recommends investigating other organizations’ mailing lists or bulletin boards to maximize marketing impact for these programs. Pender also looks to children’s services to see what new ideas are bubbling up. “A lot of the philosophy behind youth programming is just as important at the other end of the life span!”

Fond Memories

The onset of Alzheimer’s or other dementia-based illnesses doesn’t necessarily mean an end to learning. Tysha Shay, reference manager at the Library Station, a branch of the Springfield–Greene County Library District, MO, served as a secondary caregiver for her grandmother, an Alzheimer’s patient. “As a librarian, I understood how to research and provide resources and library materials to our family,” Shay says. “However, the library wasn’t promoting its resources to my family, nor was it offering any direct programming to my grandma…. Learning is a lifelong pursuit, and it’s part of the library’s vision to keep these members of society connected no matter their stage of life.”

LIFE STORY The Stories for Life program at the Springfield–Greene County Library District, MO, provides books, videos, and other library materials of regional and historic interest, for example, on rural medicine (l.) and Grandma Moses (r.)


In response to this need, Shay developed a pilot program in 2012 called Stories for Life. It is now offered monthly at several facilities. The program is “designed to inspire, entertain, and engage those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s living in residential communities through discussion and reminiscing, while bringing the educational benefits of the library to their facility.” Shay’s curriculum includes books, videos, and other library resources, as well as games and various sensory materials on topics of regional and historic interest. After using some of Shay’s own themes, such as the Frisco Railroad and Laura Ingalls Wilder, participants began requesting their own ideas, from famous Missourians to the history of the Olympics. “That means they are driving their own programming, which is pretty incredible when you think about [the audience],” Shay notes.

She usually sees 13–14 people per group, with approximately 4,000 people reached since the program’s inception. This program is all about “making meaningful connections for them in their day,” Shay tells LJ. “It’s a welcoming environment where they have a chance to talk to each other in different ways than the facility may generally offer. It also shows that the library has not forgotten them.”

Senior services librarians Deb Gonzales and Marie Ingram of Arapahoe Libraries, CO, are bringing TimeSlips storytelling to memory care facilities. This method uses stock photographs to inspire a story created on the spot by the assembled group. According to its website, TimeSlips replaces “the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine.” A ten-hour online training course is available to become certified in this approach.


In May, BPL’s Evans received grant funding to support a new idea: using Amazon’s Alexa device to engage older adults, particularly those with dementia. “We hope to use Alexa to help older adults with an introduction to voice command devices,” Evans tells LJ. In addition to working with BPL’s IT department “to make our audiobooks available as an app,” staff will also explore the use of Memory Lane, an Alexa “skill” that “connects users to the past using archival historical content,” according to “We hope to improve the aging experience by incorporating these devices…to build stronger social engagement at the library,” says Evans.

Richard Lyda, supervisor of mobile library services with Arapahoe Libraries and a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker, notes the value of bringing new technologies specifically to memory care facilities, expanding on the traditional lobby stops and home delivery of materials. “Our library district in general has a big tech focus,” he says. “We do technology ‘road shows,’ where we bring things like drones or robots to demonstrate with the residents. The reaction depends on the person, but most people are really into it; one resident grabbed a drone and didn’t want to let go—he was making airplane noises when he had been considered largely nonverbal.” Animatronic cats are also part of the program. Hasbro’s Joy for All Companion Pets are designed for dementia therapy; sensors in the feline surrogates trigger movement and sound that replicate the real thing. “The patients get really attached,” says Lyda. One resident noted, “This is the best I’ve felt all month” and didn’t want to let the cat go. In order to allow the positive interaction to continue, Gonzales returned a few days later to collect the cat.


Librarians are designing programs to use in outreach services to memory care units and assisted-living facilities. Retired academic librarian Mary Beth Riedner developed the Tales and Travels curriculum to “take participants on an imaginary trip to another country or region of the United States,” according to the project’s website. Developed in partnership with the Gail Borden Public Library, Elgin, IL, the program allows librarians and caregivers to access and replicate a dozen “excursions” with supporting program materials, all available under a Creative Commons license.

Riedner, who is the current chair of the Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias Interest Group (IGARD) of the American Library Association, shares that Tales and Travels was recently the subject of a research study funded by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine. The study results reveal that participation in these imaginary journeys offers a variety of positive benefits, from increased social interaction to improved cognition in areas such as “memory recall, reading ability, and emotional engagement,” according to the Tales and Travels website.

Gonzales brings her little red “rummage wagon” to memory care facilities; “I use the word rummage because I don’t focus on memory but on creativity, curiosity, and being in the moment.” The wagon is filled with various items on a general theme, and she adds books, movies, and pictures to fill out the interactive experience for memory care residents. “Depending on what stage of their dementia they are in and how they are feeling that day, sometimes they remember things. However, more often and more important, we just have fun looking at all the items in the wagon and talking about them with curiosity and wonder.” A photo of President Eisenhower seemed to elicit quite a bit of speech and memory recall with a relatively nonverbal audience, Arapahoe’s Lyda notes with a chuckle.


Libraries can go through training to become “dementia-friendly”; staff at the Arapahoe Libraries are in the process of learning how to help visitors with dementia and their caregivers, from recognizing signs of the condition to how best to communicate verbally and physically. Lyda recommends looking for local Alzheimer’s associations that may offer training, and he shares that his library also implements a virtual reality program that simulates dementia, to grow empathy and understanding. “It’s very intense and visceral,” he says.

April Witteveen is a Community Librarian with the Deschutes Public Library system in Central Oregon

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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