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MIKE WATSON: Welcome back, I hope you enjoyed seeing some of those fantastic presentations and projects from across the country. We're about to hear from another great group of panelists on the topic of Collectively Taking Action, the second phase of community engagement. They'll discuss strategies and approaches for getting to work in a way that generates results and trust. Before we introduce our next speakers, though, we'd like to play a video that demonstrates that concept from AARP Missouri and their partners at Citizens for Modern Transit. This video is about five minutes.
KIM CELLA: We are at the Emerson Park MetroLink station in East St. Louis and we are about to kick off our second transit stop transformation project in the St. Louis region with our partners, AARP and St. Louis, the St. Clair County Transit District and Metro Transit.
KEN SHARKEY: We have an area here that's basically very bland, wide open area of just concrete and curbing and lighting and we're going to try to create a little bit of a creative, artistic, interactive type of activity for people to be able to use and appreciate while they're waiting to catch a bus, or maybe waiting to catch a train.
KIM CELLA: The Emerson Park station is truly a blank slate for our design team. It is, right now, a sea of concrete. There have been significant investments in this station, with new LED lighting and there will be a new public safety office here that will be another $2 million investment. But the actual corridor between the entrance of MetroLink to where transit riders get on the buses at the station is just a complete blank slate. We want to make this an interactive, playful corridor for residents of East St. Louis, for residents of the Emerson Park housing development across the street, but also for visitors and transit riders alike. And there's so much potential here and we can't wait to see what our design team, CBB and PGAV come up with.
JACQUE KNIGHT: We are getting feedback on the design concepts for the Emerson Park transit transformation. So to this point, we've engaged the community via two design workshops. We've had an online survey and we've been able to get some great input about what the community wants to see here at the transit stop. So we took that feedback and we developed two designs. One is a really colorful, playful option. The other really plays on the musical history of East St. Louis. So we've put together those concepts, we have some boards and we're getting feedback from transit riders and community members as they pass by.
SHEILA HOLM: It's been an amazing experience for us to capture that much engagement from the community, the input. I think they're going to love it, you know. I think it really depicts the community in a positive way. I think that it addresses the things that they thought were challenges.
JACQUE KNIGHT: We also wanted the opportunity to really look at the history of East St. Louis and one of the things that came up throughout our community engagement was that music has a long history in the region.
SHELIA HOLM: And through the graciousness of the St. Clair County Transit District they're going to pipe in jazz music. How cool is that? Transit stops are generally just a pass-through. People don't come there and engage. They don't feel connected to the community that they're passing through. And anytime we create an activation at the station, it brings the community into the station and those users of transit then feel a little more connected. There's also a sense of pride for the community where the station is located. And again, it's cool. It's connecting all the dots, so if it's community businesses or people just passing through.
JAVYN SOLOMON: Public art has been proven to boost morale, if nothing else, and it encourages people to want to explore spaces. So yeah, I definitely think that things like this — and I'm hoping in this station it drives a lot more traffic, literally, to this place.
SHELIA HOLM: Thank you to everyone for joining us this morning — to our residents, the riders, our consulting team and to our partners and the volunteers who brought this project to fruition. Again, when we got here, look at the sky. That's all you saw, was gray everywhere — gray concrete walls, gray fencing. And we are so excited to bring you this vibrant change and transformation. And so we hope to see you in 2022 in the next stop in Illinois.
MIKE WATSON: Wow! Kudos to everybody involved in that work in St. Louis. Those are fantastic results stemming from community engagement and a really great demonstration of exactly what we're talking about here today. So now it's time for our next panel discussion. Now it's my great pleasure to introduce my friend and colleague Danielle Arigoni, director of AARP Livable Communities/Government Affairs here at AARP. Danielle?
DANIELLE ARIGONI: Hi, Mike. Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for having me here today. I'm really excited to be here. I want to start with a shout out to all of my colleagues on the Programs team and our state and staff and volunteers who have a hand in putting this event together. I look forward to it every year. It's a great chance to learn from one another and I always emerge inspired to take action and I'm sure that this year will be no different. Next, I'm really excited to introduce our fantastic panel focused on just that — taking action.
- Peter Holtgrave oversees a number of portfolios at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, including performance improvement and workforce development, health equity and social justice.
- Atalaya Sergi leads AmeriCorps Seniors, which is the federal grantmaking office that is focused on promoting and engaging people 55 and over in outcomes-oriented service across the United States of America.
- And Ifeoma Ebo [Urban Designer, Strategist and Founding Director, Creative Urban Alchemy], is an internationally sought-after consultant on equitable design for governments and civic institutions. She’s held leadership roles in initiatives funded by the UN, FIFA and New York City's mayor's office.
So welcome to all three of you. I'm excited for our conversation today. With all that older adults bring to the table we know that there are many ways in which they can be engaged and they should be engaged. Regardless of the approach, however, there are certain things that we need to keep in mind to build trust — and I think that that's probably going to be the mantra of this event is moving at the speed of trust, as we've heard from Lynn today and from our prior panelists. We really need to keep that in mind.
And so, with that in mind, we want to hear from you, audience attendees. Which of the following are most important when engaging older adults? So open up your Slido app. You should see some numbers there, some options to select. You may select as many as apply. Our options include using a variety of communication methods, ensuring the accessibility of venues, combating age-related stereotypes, addressing barriers (technological language or other) and using clear and respectful language.
Which of those do you think makes the biggest difference? Which are the things that we need to be most considerate of when we are looking to engage older adults. And I think, arguably, we could say all of these are important but we're really trying to, sort of, hone in on the things that we need to be most mindful of when we are trying to build that trust in order so that we can move toward action.
Let me start with our panelists to see if you have any responses as they continue to come in. Peter, I think we'll start with you. I think you saw that the top option there, using a variety of communication methods, was in the lead a moment ago. Any reflections on that?
PETER HOLTGRAVE: Yes, thanks so much. It's a pleasure to be here. That doesn't surprise me at all. I would say that, given our local department members, communication, especially during a time of a pandemic, is key and we've heard over and again there's an ongoing challenge for medication guidance on what's the latest recommendations from CDC.
How do we translate that and get that into the meaningful ways that people can digest that and understand what's the most current relevant information to, really, inform their own self-protection? And I would say that it's critical that those individuals, 50-plus in particular, that we can't just give out guidance as governmental public health without engaging older adults — in particular and across the spectrum — especially those representing, you know, BIPOC and people of color, that the communication is key.
We can't just give out advice, if it's been playing a jargon, or even if it's a font size, or if it’s communicated through media, that we make assumptions that disconnect with the people that we're trying to partner with and to be able to respond and preserve all of our — be protective of all of our health in a time of a pandemic. Communication is a number one issue across how we function in government and public health, but understandably how we engage with communities as well, including older adults.
DANIELLE ARIGONI: Fantastic. Maybe we can see those Slido results again and see if, Atalaya, if you have any thoughts on where the scores landed. It looks as if communication is still at the top there, is that surprising in any way?
ATALAYA SERGI: Again, I would say no, I completely agree with everything that's been shared before. It's really important. And it's really important to think about all the different ways that you can communicate with older adults, being responsive to the questions that they have. In our case, at AmeriCorps Seniors, we share a lot of information with our project directors to make sure that they have the information they need to engage older adults in service in the community.
The one that I really was surprised about was around combating age-related stereotypes. So I do think, like, that is really important, maybe from the engagement side of organizations and community groups, and making sure that they create spaces and do outreach to older adults. I think, sometimes we have errored belief about the capabilities, the interests, the knowledge of what older adults are capable of, and I think in some ways that can sometimes rob programs and communities of an impactful group of volunteers, support system and people who come with deep knowledge and experience who would be ready right away to support community needs and come with different perspectives and experiences that could help them be successful in whatever challenge we're trying to overcome. So that's one that I expected to be a little bit higher.
IFEOMA EBO: I was actually quite surprised by the using clear and respectful language wasn't higher. I do find that really, particularly working in communities who have experienced trauma, who have experienced a lot of no's and hardships, that really bringing a level of humility, dignity and respect is critical to being able to foster that sense of trust with people, to feel that they feel that they're being respected, that their opinion is being acknowledged and legitimate to the process and that they're seen as just as important as anybody else that's being brought to the table.
DANIELLE ARIGONI: Yeah, fantastic points and great. Well, let's dig in a little bit on each of your respective areas of expertise, which I'm really excited to hear more about.
Let's start with you, Atalaya. Older adults are the backbone of volunteering in America, giving back through service and contributions to charities. AmeriCorps Seniors matches over 200,000 volunteers, all age 55 and over, with service opportunities every year. Tell us about the impact that AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers are making. What are the results and impact of their service? And what makes older adults unique, for example, in terms of skills, expertise and experience? And what can organizations do to become more inclusive in their volunteer engagement? A lot of questions there, but we want to hear about your work.
ATALAYA SERGI: Thank you, thank you so much. And thanks to AARP for inviting me to participate on the panel today. National service programs are a cost-effective way to engage older adults to help solve a wide array of the country's most pressing challenges. A survey of our programs determines that for every dollar the federal government invested in AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps Seniors that America — the American people — get more than a $17 return to communities, to program participants and to the federal government.
While I share a little about each program, you will hear the impact our older adult volunteers are making in their communities through their activities and through who they are serving. In addition, I think about the unique qualities of our older adult volunteers. And as Danielle stated, they are all over 55 years of age. They are from various generations, which allows for a really broad perspective. They come with a plethora of skillsets and lived experience which allows them to be an asset day one in solving those community challenges. And they tend to volunteer for an average of seven years, which provides long-term capacity to community organizations and allows those organizations to enhance their programs and expand their reach.
AmeriCorps Seniors is a federal grantmaking office that awards grants to local agencies to engage older adults who are recruited from their communities where there will be serving. So they come with built-in knowledge of the community, trust of those in the community, which is so important. Let me share a little bit about our three programs.
The first one is volunteers in our Foster Grandparent program, which is an intergenerational program, provides services to more than 200,000 children and youth as tutors, mentors, role models who support academic and social-emotional development and growth. They serve in organizations including Head Start centers, schools, juvenile justice facilities, Boys & Girls Clubs, other after school and summer programs. And for children and youth, these consistent relationships help them to improve academically, develop better communication skills and support better problem-solving skills and abilities. Research that we've seen demonstrates that children with consistent older adult influences are also less likely to use illicit drugs and alcohol, skip school or engage in other negative behaviors that are damaging to themselves and to their communities.
Our second program that we have in AmeriCorps Seniors is volunteers that participate in our Senior Companion program. This is a peer-to-peer program that provides services like grocery shopping, bill paying and transportation to medical appointments and all services that support the independent living, of over 800,000 homebound elders and persons with disabilities in their communities. Having the support of a Senior Companion volunteer allows elders and persons with disabilities to remain in their home, saving the personal and social service cost of having to move to more expensive institutional care. They can live independently. For those living alone, having that consistent contact, engagement and support of a Senior Companion helps to circumvent and mitigate social isolation and loneliness and the health risks associated with that. This is particularly impactful for those living in rural and less urban areas in which many of our volunteer serve.
Our third and most flexible program is RSVP, in which volunteers provide a myriad of services based on the community's needs. These services include tax preparation, disaster response and recovery, benefits education and meal preparation and delivery. So volunteers help those that need homes to come out of homelessness. They support small businesses in acquiring funds from the federal government and they engage in financial coaching with individuals facing challenges during really challenging financial situations and provide support to our veterans and military families. And that's just a few things that they do.
During quarantine, many of our RSVP volunteers continued to serve, delivering food to elders in need, staffing hotlines to ensure that community residents have enough food and supplies. And they found ways to continue to transport elders to their most urgent medical appointments.
Even right now, many of our RSVP volunteers are still supporting their local health centers by sharing information with those that may be vaccine hesitant, registering residents for vaccine appointments, helping with transportation and in some communities, retired medical professionals are administering shots and supporting other critical medical needs that the community needs help with. So as you can see, the services and activities of our older adults contribute to the functioning of our communities. They help us to reach those most in need. And the relationships that they develop, either peer-to-peer or intergenerationally, break down bias and make communities healthier stronger and more connected.
The ways that we can work to be inclusive: one, to make sure that the agencies that want to engage older adults have an internal culture of inclusiveness and that they make people really feel welcome, that we really respond to the needs of older adults in the way that we structure programs, the way that we engage them in input and feedback, the materials that we provide them and the way that we acknowledge the lived experience and skills that they come with. Really, also thinking about how we can engage those that may have been served. So bringing them back and asking them, do they want to participate in the programs as well? And many times they do. They want to help others. They know what other people in the community are going through and they are happy to really be engaged. So making sure that we have environments that are open and inclusive and diversity, equity, inclusion and access for all of our older adults.
DANIELLE ARIGONI: Fantastic. Thank you so much. Ifeoma, let's turn to you. In your urban design practice you found that older women naturally come to the forefront as leaders and you've made an intentional effort to lift up their perspectives to co-create spaces. You've also worked to help involve residents, particularly older adults, to understand the language of design and to connect it to their lived experiences. Can you share with us an example of that work and why that is such a guiding force in your work?
IFEOMA EBO: Thank you again to a AARP International for inviting me for another really timely conversation. As a senior design advisor for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice for three years, I led the Safe Places, Active Spaces! initiative using community-led placemaking as a tool for community safety as a part of the mayor's Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety.
The program is centered on community empowerment, strengthening community connection and civic engagement as important goals. And what I found is that, although we started with a larger group of residents in the beginning of the initiative, what we ended up with towards the end of the initiative were the aunties, the grand-aunts, the grandmothers. They were the women in the community who are retired and therefore had time. But most importantly, they understood the stories of families and were invested in the community, having lived there for longer than others. They knew oftentimes who were the troubled children in the community who needed just nurturing and community support. And, therefore, what we found were the best people, actually, to have at the table to really come up with solutions that address community safety without the use of aggressive law enforcement. Their level of commitment to the community and seeing it thrive was abundant.
We trained residents in human-centered design, community design, placemaking and community organizing to assist in connecting their lived experience with the technical language and methodology of design. They began to understand how dysfunction in their built environment can lead to opportunities for crime, but, most importantly, how their lived experience is important to understanding the root causes of crime in their neighborhood, as an approach to creating new strategies for transforming behavior, positively shifting culture and building community power through design. We made sure to integrate key aspects of domains of justice, being distributed and showing that quality design, quality community programming occurs in places that need it most.
The second being procedural, that the process — our process — is fair and just. We incorporated community in every facet of that process and really brought them to the table when it comes to decision making for government.
Thirdly, that the process and the final public space transformation encouraged improved interactions in the community. Where they had expressed that there was poor interaction or poor social activity, this program initiative really strived to improve that interactive nature in the community. Fourth, representational – that the transformation of public open space represented their ideas, their culture, their heritage, what they wanted to see happen in public space. And lastly, and I would say most importantly, the program really strived to enhance the ethic of care in the community, whether it is to the transformation of public space or even in the process itself, really encouraging people to raise up their ethic of care towards each other, but then also the ways in which the government responds to the public. So, the older women were bringing the youth and creating strategies that centered community-collective problem solving.
DANIELLE ARIGONI: That’s great. I love that concept of ethic of care and that that was, sort of, manifest through your work. Peter, I mean, NACCHO is in the business of providing care, right? And local health departments, through their efforts to provide care, impact residents’ lives every day, and that's never been more important or apparent, really, than in the last 18 months or so. You all help to serve 3,000 local health departments, working with them to support effective, local public health practice and systems. What are some promising examples that you've seen of local health departments engaging 50-plus residents in unique ways to create healthier communities? And what impact has the pandemic had on these efforts?
PETER HOLTGRAVE: Yeah, thanks so much for those questions. And it's good to remind all of us that there are roughly 3,000 local, meaning city and county health departments, nationwide and the vast majority of them, as you mentioned, and the vast majority of them serve increasingly older populations, and so the disparities and inequities that folks are highlighting and the opportunities, even through design solutions are quite, you know, are there.
Most health departments serve smaller, rural jurisdictions where the median age is much older. And so it's also worth flagging that the workforce within health departments, especially at the local health official or leadership positions, and even frontline staff, which are typically, like, public health, nurses, there are also much older in age. And so we're kind of bracing ourselves for a vast, kind of, turnover and attrition within local governmental public health, which is kind of connected to, in some ways, but is exacerbated by the attacks that public officials have seen. And I think that there has been a longstanding tradition of health departments either supporting, directly or indirectly, programs that really benefit or target, you know, adults 50 plus and being able to elevate those stories and to build upon those successes so that folks can associate local governmental public health as something good and it protects and improves health in this, kind of, polarizing time, I think, is really important. So that's, kind of, the value proposition in governmental public health, continuing to invest in the older adult populations they serve and to really collaborate meaningfully.
These longer-term programs, such as the Chronic Disease Self-Management program, the Diabetes Self-Management program, whichever I’ve had the fortune to be an instructor with, many health departments support those. And some of the pair of the lead instructor, you know, pair teachers. It’s been very enriching to learn from them as much as they are working with those enrolled in those programs, kind of, overlaying what agencies do focusing on population health.
There's been other examples of healthy eating and active living, some of which have been described earlier today, where health departments are playing a key role either providing space or partnership connections. Where I had the fortune of working with one national program called Kids Healthy Habits, where it was intergenerational. Older adults were giving back to their communities by being role models to kids, you know, basically kindergarten to middle school, and by the same token, improving their own health and lifestyles, which was great to see. We have seen that health departments have been involved in working with housing and urban development projects, where public housing is supporting increasingly intergenerational approaches, where they're helping to ensure that there can be kinship care.
A lot of this is at the programmatic level, but certainly these kinds of partnerships are staffed by and with individuals and volunteers who really help to make sure that the public health services that we're providing to the community are really based in their lived reality.
Other examples would be is that we've seen health department actually co-locate services, where Davis County Department of Health in Utah actually has their AAA — their area agency on aging — within the health department, which has fostered many collaborative efforts around and coordination efforts around transportation, especially for those hard-to-reach and home-bound folks, deploying mobile teams for vaccinations, especially during COVID, and other efforts. So it's great to see some of those silos, kind of, break down by more deliberately partnering and sharing resources in that way.
I would also say there needs to be more in this space, but there are examples of health departments who have partnered with agencies and individuals 50-plus in really positive ways, trying to, again, desilo and look at the whole lifespan. And whether it's an initiative like the CDC’s Healthy Brain initiative that is focusing on dementia, which kind of cuts across the age barrier, if you will, but also focuses on particular adults who are older. You know, we have great examples of community partnerships, led by older adults with health departments, like in San Diego and in Boston and others, where they really are advancing public health approaches to building that trust we've heard about earlier today to really help to preserve and protect community health. As well as, we've seen more health departments become more aware of a plan-active role in the aging healthy communities movement, which, of course, directly overlaps with the opportunities for those of us who are 50 and older, as well as volunteers.
I would also add that many communities have declared racism as a public health crisis. And I can't think of any way for a jurisdiction or health department that is a part of those solutions addressing those issues without adults 50-plus, because often there's an overlapping between racism and ageism and gender that compound and magnify the health disparities and inequities that that are really becoming much more apparent during this time of COVID in the light of the issues being highlighted by Black Lives Matter and other movements and working with community organizers.
I would just wrap up by saying that of course COVID has made a big impact on a lot of these programs. Given the duration of this pandemic — it’s not just an emergency episode, but it's been going on for over two years — we have seen a lot of resiliency in these communities and many of these efforts are championed by older adults to be able to, as we've heard in the previous panel, provide those services, or through the RSVP program provide food to individuals, necessary medical care, getting them to appointments.
We are seeing a re-resurrection on the line of some of those more traditional programs, like SNP, C-SNP and all that, falls prevention programs and the engagement of health departments and those things. But it's great to see these partnerships evolve in response to what’s happening during the pandemic.
DANIELLE ARIGONI: Thank you. This has been such a robust conversation. I think we all acknowledge that the pandemic has caused us to think differently about how we approach our work. We know that some of the mechanisms and tools available to us before to do community engagement were no longer feasible during COVID-19. But at the same time, that's a real opportunity to learn how to adapt, how to approach problems differently. What are some of the solutions and the new models for community engagement that you've seen emerge in COVID-19 that we should carry with us into this post-COVID future? And I’m also going to include, sort of, a really quick and specific, what can folks on this call today do differently to better engage older adults going forward?
IFEOMA EBO: That’s a really great question. And I found that when we were in the midst of, you know, quarantining it was just like OK, what do we do, how do we reach a greater the greatest number of people?
I think what people really need to consider is diversifying your methods, that going virtual, going digital is great, it allows me to reach a larger group of people, but it also can isolate and exclude others. And so you want to do mailings. You want to do surveys. You do want to do your virtual formats, but you also want to include some of the formats that allow people who are not that in touch with technology to actually participate in your process. I think the process should also have an aspect of knowledge exchange.
What we’ve found is that, you know, in times of disaster that the first responders are not EMS or police, they are community. And so, in what ways that you can empower community with information about their neighborhood and ways that you can use the engagement process to actually build networks and strengthen connections in the community, so that when things like this happen, like a pandemic or hurricane or what have you, that there are people that are looking out for one another and that, in a sense, is establishing that ethic of care.
DANIELLE ARIGONI: That's great. I mean, the pandemic is nothing if not one large disruption to our system and we know that other disruptions will come and will follow. Atalaya, let me turn to you with that same question. What have we seen as adaptations in COVID-19? What should we carry into the future? And what is the one thing you'd asked people to do going forward?
ATALAYA SERGI: So AmeriCorps programs — AmeriCorps Seniors programs — like most of our AmeriCorps programs in the agency, are designed for in-person delivery. So, needless to say, we learned a lot about training and equipping our volunteers to deliver services virtually and in safe, socially-distanced ways. So we did a lot of work with our project directors, just to overcome some of the things that Ifeoma just mentioned, some of the technology-related challenges.
For those that did not have access to broadband or hardware or were not really comfortable with technology we made changes to our rules and regulations, looked for flexibilities in our rules and regulations to really allow our project directors to have access to funds to be able to get broadband for those who wanted to engage in that way, to have computers and tablets for them and to bring in trainers, to help them increase their digital literacy. And as one of the previous speakers talked about, we saw that our older adults not only use that technology to engage in their service, but they also use it to stay connected to their family, to their friends and to other resources in their community.
Some of the things that we really saw some changes in was around how we engaged with educational organizations. So 50 percent of our programs really are built into education. Our Foster Grandparent program is exclusively in that space and we have lots of RSVP programs that provide support to children and youth. They did a lot of remote reading and math tutoring. And that was to support the children in those skill development, when they were remote as well, which also helped with their, kind of, social isolation and loneliness. But it was also a great support to parents who are still working to have someone that could support their children in that math and reading opportunities.
We saw opportunities for our older adults to reach further and to serve new populations. So typically our focus areas are elementary to middle school, early education ages, but we did have a program that did some tutoring for first generation college students, for first generation, college-bound veterans who are going back to school. We were able to see them reach new populations in that way. But we also saw programs revive things that didn't need technology — so a pen pal program where they used the United States Postal Service to have older adults communicate with young children, which gave both of them great joy to receive things in the mail and to be able to build a relationship through writing and expressing themselves in that way.
In our independent living services there was another place that we saw a lot of change. Again, they usually meet with clients face-to-face. They had to switch to things like telephone, Zoom, Facetime, other technologies. They did letter writing and card writing as well. They also met outside on front porches and stoops to stay in contact. One of our RSVP projects developed what they call the Volunteer Emergency Response Team. And this was really an interesting project, where they actually trained younger individuals who were able to continue to go out during the pandemic and weren't as at risk as some of our older adult volunteers. They trained them to be substitutes for them to deliver meals to their clients and they were able to continue to serve more than 1,000 clients without any interruptions. But what they also did was they put in those new deliveries games, word puzzle, other little projects that they could do with their older adult clients via telephone or virtually as a way of staying in touch with them, keeping them engaged keeping their minds active, while also being able to just check in on them, do something of a wellness check to make sure they were OK and they had everything that they need.
The resource that I would lift up to everyone is that AmeriCorps Seniors received additional funding from the American Rescue Plan in our appropriations. In November, we will release a notice of funding to have some demonstration grants to be able to give out to organizations interested in engaging adults age 55 and over to help solve some of these challenges and to help our communities recover from the pandemic. So we are especially, during this particular opportunity, welcoming new organizations that haven't had our funding before to learn about it, to participate in some calls, some training calls – some informational calls – to be able to access those funds. So in the chat you'll see that there is an email, SCInnovation@cns.gov, or you can email us and let us know that you're interested and we will make sure to put you on the list and make sure you get that notice for funding.
DANIELLE ARIGONI: I know we want to hear from our audience with some questions and poll results, but Peter, let's turn to you for the final word here.
PETER HOLTGRAVE: Let me be brief. And very similar to Atalaya, that there is a companion program that is called the Medical Reserve Corps that many health departments manage or play a key role in, which is basically taking volunteers to take on response and other roles.
What we've seen during the pandemic is many of them are stepping up to the plate and, whether it's doing refugee resettlement because of what's happened in Afghanistan or COVID response, we are seeing that most MRC volunteers, or many of them, I should say — 43 percent — are ages 56 and older in age. So as an additional opportunity to be able to give back, especially in an emergency response capacity, and not just for medical professionals, we’ve seen that being a major change in an influx of older adults to support those kinds of programs. I would definitely echo the change, and especially from health departments, they have partnered with emergency responders and EMS departments and fire departments to, in different ways, and maybe for the first time, to be able to engage adults through these homebound visits to make sure that there are COVID vaccination is going on, as well as partnering with programs like Meals on Wheels as a part of course correcting during this emergency response.
The resource that I would really highlight is, is that many of us don't know that health departments and hospital systems conduct ongoing assessments to try to inform what should we prioritize, where should the funding go, what programs and needs should we meet — it’s called community health improvement activities. And I think it would be excellent that the more that adults 50-plus as volunteers are those representing organizations participate in these community-wide health improvement activities so that your voice is included into what needs and disparities need to be elevated, to make sure that when health departments and hospital systems and others who are really, collectively focusing on the public health system are really thinking about those populations and providing service better.
DANIELLE ARIGONI: Thank you, Peter. Mike, let me turn it back over to you.
MIKE WATSON: Wonderful. That was such a fantastic discussion. We have a lot of questions coming in from our viewers. The first one I'd like to start with is:
Thinking about older adult volunteers, what do you think is the biggest misconception about how and why to engage? How can we get beyond the narrative that older adults have more time and also focus on other assets that they bring, like influence, lived experience and skills in the public dialogue?
PETER HOLTGRAVE: Yeah, thanks so much for the question. I value it tremendously. I think that community voice in general, especially from older adults, including older adults is critical. And not thinking about ability — we do a lot of disability work too — and sometimes people equate that the older you are, the more less able you are to be able to contribute – and contribute doesn't have to be time in the ways that people traditionally think, or doing physical things. But as I suggested in the earlier example, when communities, when cities come together and plan for what they should prioritize to focus on the community's health, participating in — whether it's a survey, a focus group or those community conversations that you often don't think about, that the health department might be hosting — those are critical times for us to hear from you and to make sure those priorities really reflect your needs.
IFEOMA EBO: That was a really great question. Some of the misconceptions about working with an older population in particular is that they're disconnected from young people, or they’re disconnected from the youth in their community, or they have, like, a fear of the young people in the community. And I think that’s — in the work that I've done — I found that that's not the case. I’ve found that they understand young people differently.
Often, particularly in communities that have historically been marginalized or experienced trauma, the grandmothers are taking care of their grandchildren. And so they have a certain understanding and a certain connection with them and, actually, a certain appreciation for creating opportunities for them to be engaged, for them to be connected to community, for them to take a step up and become leaders in their community and are really invested in their progress and in their thriving, because that inevitably connects to the community thriving as a whole.
ATALAYA SERGI: I agree with my colleagues in getting older adults a voice in what the solutions for the community will be. I also think that when we are reaching out to older adults and sharing opportunities for volunteerism in our community, we should be intentional about lifting up what skills we are looking for in volunteers. Then we need to share the stories of the older adult volunteers who are working in the skill-based, volunteer opportunities, the impact that they are having in the community, and allowing them to be the ones that have reached out to help you with your recruitment for the next project. Those are all ways that we can better lift up the skills, the knowledge, the abilities of older adults who volunteer and move beyond just the time. That is valuable, but their skill and knowledge is also really valuable and impactful.
MIKE WATSON: Again, great comments and I want to pick up on your point there around intentionality. One of the questions that we're seeing coming in kind of harkens back to the video that we played at the beginning:
How can we work to make aging infrastructure more accessible to those with mobility issues? How can we intentionally design and take collective action so that those types of changes are able to be made in communities?
IFEOMA EBO: I think that's a really great question. I think it requires a multipronged solution, because no one path is going to address the challenge and you definitely have to start with policy and, you know, working with government to ensure that they are actually elevating and amplifying this key issue. I think in the projects that you work on, ensuring that your process is inclusive, so that it involves a wide array, including older adults who can inform the process, can inform the outcomes of the project to ensure that their needs are met. And I think these two, you know, critical aspects of just the built environment transformation are important to achieving the change that we seek.
ATALAYA SERGI: I would say that when thinking about how organizations will engage with volunteers, one is creating that policy making sure you can accommodate volunteers in their projects. And then, when placing volunteers, really starting to ask the questions to organizations and to sites that want to engage volunteers about how they make their spaces accessible, helping them to do that, but also raising that awareness that that's an expectation.
PETER HOLTGRAVE: As well, and I would just say, on the policy change front, that most elected officials are very self-aware that the most politically active in terms of voting is this age group, and so there's a lot of power there. And one area where I think that can be leveraged is around childhood obesity and focusing on walkability. I would love for older adults to champion policy change where it's not just a good solution for kids, but for all of us. How do you make something that's a walkable path also ADA compliant, so that regardless of ability, regardless of age, we can be full participants to live fully and active and healthy lives?
MIKE WATSON: Thank you so much for joining us, Danielle, Atalaya, Ifeoma and Peter. Really fantastic. What a great way to close out the first day of our workshop.
Page published October 2021
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