Seniors use library card as a key to aging-in-place services

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday April 28, 2013

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Harold Young spent 25 years teaching 5th and 6th graders in South County schools.  “Retired” for 22 years, he is now completing 15 years in a bonus years career as a volunteer with Anne Arundel County Public Library branches in Annapolis and Eastport.

“Why do you do this?” I asked.  “I want to do something useful, and here at the library I can be useful to the entire community – from kids to seniors.  The library is strapped for money; as a volunteer I can help fill the gaps.”

With increasing longevity, many Americans, like Harold, will spend as much time in their bonus years as they spent in their working years.  Of many hundreds I have talked to, most tell me what Harold said: They want “to do something useful.”

Now 79, Harold and Joan, his wife of 57 years and herself a former library volunteer, are living at home in Annapolis, part of a growing aging-in-place movement.

Aging-in-place is one of the fastest-growing movements in America.  It’s about the ability of seniors to live in their own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.

But aging-in-place is possible only if a community provides ample and affordable resources to deliver the assistance and services needed by those in later-life.

Some support is provided by neighborhood associations or other non-profits – such as Partners in Care, which provides non-medical aging-in-place services such as transportation and home maintenance to Annapolis area residents.

Support is provided by for-profit enterprises – such as Visiting Angels, which provides home-health-care services both in Annapolis and around the nation.

Of support provided by government, the Anne Arundel County Public Library is one of the most important – and perhaps most overlooked – example.  AACPL operates 15 library branches, including five in the immediate Annapolis area.  These community libraries are both proactive and responsive to community needs, including those of the region’s aging population.

In addition to lending books and providing newspapers and magazines, Annapolis area libraries provide meeting space for community projects and educational programs, such as knitting, gardening, journaling, biking and genealogy – and book clubs on everything from mysteries to history.

According to Laurie Hayes, marketing manager for AACPL, “Meeting space for the year can be reserved on the first Monday in October.  The line forms early and it’s long.  You would think we were selling tickets for a rock concert.”

Other programs offer technical assistance.  Example: Seven AACPL branches joined with AARP to offer free income tax assistance to seniors trying to work their way through the often arcane rules of the IRS.

Perhaps most important to seniors, library programs teach new technologies.  Young people are “digital natives” who grew up with Facebook, Google and e-books.  But most later-life Americans are “digital immigrants.”  Like any newcomers to a strange place, many seek to learn the language and lifestyle of the new digital culture so they can take advantage of the opportunities it offers for working, learning and social engagement.

For example, during the economic downturn, the library joined with the Anne Arundel County Workforce Development Corps to help residents prepare for and find jobs.  For seniors seeking employment that often required learning how to use a computer because 80 percent of all job listings now use online applications.

That’s one reason why the libraries offer classes to teach residents, including seniors, how to use computers, send and receive email, do a Google search or use Nook or Kindle to read an e-book.  When I asked Harold Young about the biggest changes in his 15 years of volunteer work, he said, “There are three: Computers, computers, and computers.”  Today, AACPL’s 15 branches have 321 computers and many e-book readers for public use.

Hayes observes, “Many older residents, especially those with eyesight issues, prefer digital versions of books, newspapers and magazines because they can create a ‘large-print edition’ simply by enlarging the fonts.  Arthritis prevents one of our regulars, approaching her 100th birthday, from turning the pages of a book but she can navigate the ‘pages’ of an e-reader. In fact, several have told me they would have to give up reading were it not for the library’s e-reading and audio book services.”

The library also makes it easy for the home-bound to use its services.  You can chat with a librarian via computer 24/7. And you can receive materials online or via snail mail.

The libraries of Anne Arundel County represent major social, economic and public health assets that go well beyond conventional “impact measures” of “books borrowed” or “reference questions answered.”  The libraries contribution to the region’s growing senior community is huge – whether measured by improving the quality of life for aging residents or measured by reducing health care costs by supporting the region’s aging-in-place capacity.

Libraries have been around for a long time.  Longer than the nation-state system.  Longer than the Roman Catholic Church.  They survive and prosper because they adapt to changing technologies – from papyrus and books to the Internet and the Kindle – and they accommodate changing needs and priorities of communities they serve.  Today, they are providing services that are essential to the aging-in-place movement, which will be critically important between now and 2030, when the last of the nation’s boomers retire.

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