Effective Public Library Services for Seniors

Effective Public Library Services for Seniors

Older patron at library computer terminal receiving instruction

The “age wave.” The “silver tsunami.” Whatever you call it, America is aging rapidly—and what it means to age is changing. With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day, seniors now make up about 15% of the country’s population; by 2060, it will be nearly a quarter. We are living longer, and able to be more active for a larger proportion of our lives. Libraries should consider how to provide equitable, accessible, and meaningful services for this growing segment of our communities. 

At the same time that it is becoming more essential for libraries to offer services to seniors, we must recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all service model. Seniors are a diverse group. Some are retired, while others work. Some are tech-savvy, while others are not. Some are surrounded by family and active in the community, while others have been displaced or isolated. The physical and mental impacts of aging affect people in different ways and at different points in their lives. And like people of any age, seniors hold a wide spectrum of intersectional identities.

How can libraries serve seniors when their goals and needs can be so diverse? There is no substitute for getting to know the seniors in your own community and working with them to create responsive services and programs. However, this article will suggest a few different possible avenues to consider. No single approach will be right for every senior in the community, but a thoughtfully selected mix can help you serve a wide-ranging group. 

Social Connection

Libraries support social connection and a sense of belonging at every age. This is especially important for older adults, who are at higher risk for social isolation and loneliness. This is even more true for seniors who are LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, or immigrants or refugees. Social isolation is an important determinant of health; it is linked with a 50% increased risk for dementia and other serious health conditions. Libraries can support social connection through programs that foster discussion and relationships, such as book groups, film discussions, and crafts. 

Older person in suit volunteering at the library

One model for promoting social connection among seniors is the Wisdom Café. Created by Wendy Pender at King County Library System (WA), this model for facilitated discussions has spread nationwide. Facilitators select topics based on participants’ interests. As Seattle City Councilmember Bagshaw wrote, “The glory of these exchanges is that people meet new friends, get useful and practical tips, and leave the venue with a feeling of togetherness and that they are not isolated. Gathering with others and sharing in meaningful discussions combats feelings of isolation. The goal of Wisdom Cafés is to be heard and respected”. You can learn more about the Wisdom Café model in Pender’s chapter in the book The Relevant Library: Essays on Adapting to Changing Needs by Vera Gubnitskaia and Carol Smallwood, with a foreword by Scott Walter. 

Older patron in wheelchair approaching library checkout desk

Libraries can also support social connection by providing volunteer opportunities for seniors. These can be as diverse as seniors themselves, ranging from simple tasks like shelving books or helping with crafts to complex, self-directed projects that draw on seniors’ years of experience and knowledge. Might a retired executive or entrepreneur be willing to offer coaching for job seekers or new entrepreneurs? Could someone with a passion for the outdoors help the library start and maintain a garden or seed library? Do you have renowned scholars or experts in your community who could provide educational programming? You might have a Teen Advisory Board; how about a Senior Advisory Board to help select, implement, and promote library services to older adults? Seniors, especially those who are retired or have reduced their work hours, may have time to spare and much to contribute. 

Financial Planning

Seniors can be in radically different places in their work and financial lives. Some are at the peak of their careers; some have already retired or are on a fixed income; and some are getting ready to explore a “second act” like starting a business or pursuing a passion. Libraries can offer programs and resources for each audience. Topics are wide-ranging but might include retirement planning, investing, understanding Medicare, switching career fields, or becoming an entrepreneur. Because many scams specifically target seniors, this group may also benefit from education on avoiding financial harm. The American Library Association’s Financial Literacy Interest Group has created a blog post and webinar specifically focused on meeting the financial planning needs of seniors. 

Additionally, people may be more interested in end-of-life and estate planning at this time in their lives. This includes financial planning like creating a will or planned giving, as well as other important topics like health care power of attorney. For ex

ample, Westport Library (CT) maintains an end-of-life planning LibGuide. Some libraries hold informational programs or community conversations on the topic of end-of-life and estate planning. 

Older patron working with librarian at a computer terminal

Learning for Fun 

We all love to learn. With less pressure to complete formal schooling or career-related learning, seniors may be looking for opportunities to learn for enjoyment, enrichment, and personal growth. Libraries can respond to this goal with an array of interest-based learning opportunities. We can offer exposure to new ideas, skills, and cultures through topics like creative arts, travel, current events, and history. While seniors are a diverse group, many have shared historical and cultural touchstone events, from the moon landing to swing dancing, that can serve as the basis for a program. 

Technology is another area of interest. Do not assume that all seniors need help with the basics (though some certainly do, and tech tutoring or tech help programs can be helpful and popular). Tech-savvy seniors may be more interested in keeping up with or experiencing new technology. Some libraries have offered seniors the chance to try out virtual reality, robotic pets, recording equipment, and more. (My own mother-in-law is an avid user of her local library’s Makerspace. She recently learned to use a laser cutter to etch a wooden sign for a grandchild’s bedroom door.) 

Older patrons with headsets at computers showing what they've learned at the library to their adult children

Intergenerational programming can benefit both seniors and youth, and seniors can be either learners or teachers. For example, seniors could serve as “reading buddies” for emerging readers, or teens could offer one-on-one technology help to seniors. 

Addressing the Physical and Mental Impacts of Aging

People are impacted in different ways and at different times by age-related health challenges. Some seniors you serve are not yet affected at all, while others may be confined to skilled nursing facilities, and everything in between. To offer services that are accessible to all, it is helpful to consider how to serve a range of physical and mental abilities. 

Make it standard practice to use amplification in programs. Hearing loss is very common as people age and is often invisible. Some presenters (including staff) may feel uncomfortable using a microphone at first, or may believe that they speak loudly enough without one. However, we have no way of knowing the hearing ability of every person in the room. Even when we ask if everyone can hear, it is inequitable to put the onus on attendees to publicly announce a hearing disability to the entire room. If you can use a room equipped with a hearing loop or other assistive technology that works directly with hearing aids, do so. 

Similarly, consider vision loss and visual disabilities. If you are using or displaying print, utilize larger type, uncluttered layouts, and high color contrast. These are essential for people who may have low vision, and harmless or even helpful for others. When presenting, do not assume people can easily and quickly read large amounts of text on a slide. Make important points both verbally and visually, so all participants can understand key information. 

For physical accessibility, hopefully your library already adheres to ADA standards and has made efforts to reduce barriers to using the building with mobility aids. Beyond the basics, libraries can consider other ways to make library services more accessible. Patrons who cannot easily leave their home or a care facility may be served by off-site outreach visits, such as home delivery or monthly service at a facility. You might consider ways to ease the burden for patrons in the middle—those able to access the library at least some of the time, or who can visit the library but are unable to carry heavy loads of books. Extended checkouts or hold periods may support people who need to arrange for transportation or assistance to continue using the library. 

Older library patron in wheelchair reading a book

Some people may experience cognitive impacts like dementia and memory loss as they age. The library can develop services and resources specifically for people experiencing dementia and their caregivers or care partners. Similar to how libraries may offer separate experiences designed for people with sensory processing differences, they can offer programs and services created with the needs of dementia-impacted families in mind. As an example, Pima County Library offers memory kits. Memory kits are boxes of resources themed to encourage reminiscence. For example, a 1950s-themed box might include music CDs, a movie set in that time period, and photos or memorabilia from that era. They can be loaned to individuals, brought to care facilities or senior centers, or used in library programs. For example, Shrewsbury Public Library (MA) has offered Memory Café programs for people with Alzheimer’s and their care partners. 

Collections of music of the type added to library memory kits

Does This Sound Like a Lot? Consider a Specialist Position

Some libraries have a position dedicated to serving seniors, such as a librarian or a coordinator. Having someone at the helm can help the library ensure that the social, emotional, intellectual, and physical needs of seniors are considered. As one example, Denver Public Library has a Manager of Older Adult Services, and maintains a web page of older adult resources and events. The person in this role can identify services and create programs; build relationships with other organizations serving seniors; and keep the library current on trends, research, issues, and events related to aging. While that is plenty of work for a full-time job, there are other options if your system does not have the budget or capacity for a dedicated position. As a model, consider how some youth services librarians focus on smaller age ranges, like teens or 0–5, while still supporting youth services and the library as a whole. Could an existing adult services library be similarly asked to specialize in seniors?

Putting It All Together

Seniors, like people of any age, are a diverse group holding many intersectional identities. To meet their varied needs and support them in accomplishing their goals, librarians must avoid playing into stereotypes of aging. At the same time, we want to be able to serve this population effectively and with intention. We can recognize some of seniors’ common experiences and goals, like social connection, financial planning, and lifelong learning, then offer a range of programs and services within those categories. We can also make our libraries more accessible for all people, including seniors, by proactively ensuring that a range of visual, hearing, mobility, and cognitive abilities are the default in our spaces, services, and programs. By responding to our country’s growing senior population, we can make our libraries more inclusive, welcoming, and innovative for all. 

For more public library programming ideas from Dr. Audrey Barbakoff, check out:

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