Orange County, NC is already a great place for people of all ages to live, but the county Department on Aging is leading an effort to become even more age-friendly. To achieve this goal, the Department is leading a comprehensive community planning process to create a five-year Master Aging Plan (MAP). Like previous MAPs, the 2017-2022 MAP will become a roadmap for decision-making and action around all things aging.
When I joined the first MAP process I was 41 years old. At that time, aging was mostly an academic issue to me. Now, at 61, I feel very fortunate to be part of a process that I know will impact the quality of my later years. As the director of UNC’s Partnerships in Aging Program and a consultant to Orange County’s Department on Aging, I envision a time when every age is celebrated and elderhood is viewed as a time for continued growth, thriving, and participation. I’m sharing the MAP process in this post with Carolina Angles because I believe celebrating every age requires planning for every age.
All the previous MAPs were developed through citizen and stakeholder input, and with each cycle our planning processes and implementation partnerships have improved and strengthened. To develop the 2017-2022 MAP we took gathering citizen and stakeholder input to the next level using the following strategies with multiple stakeholder groups:
1. First, we established a Steering Committee comprised of leaders from the Board of County Commissioners, county department heads, faith-based groups, health services, and public service organizations such as our libraries, EMS, and sheriff’s office. Members of the Steering Committee met to learn about the MAP process, serve as advisors to the process, and publicly commit their organization’s resources to support the MAP.
2. Second, the County joined AARP’s Age Friendly Community Initiative – the first in North Carolina to do so. The Age Friendly Community concept began as a project of the World Health Organization (WHO). Working in 33 cities in 22 countries, the WHO identified the essential ingredients of an age-friendly community. The AARP translated the WHO work for the United States and instituted a program of measurement for the “age-friendliness” of states, counties, cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
3. Third, we formed a leadership team to plan our community input process which included leaders from the Department on Aging, Advisory Board members, myself as a consultant from UNC, and a multidisciplinary cadre of students from nursing, public health, city and regional planning, and social work. Mary Fraser, Aging Transitions Administrator with Department on Aging, served as our “leader of leaders.” Mary worked tirelessly to ensure we listened carefully to our community and that our efforts were comprehensive and respectful. Mary was ever-willing to try something new and encouraged all of us to do the same. Her positive spirit and attention to the smallest details were key to the success of our community planning process.
4. Next, we spent 4 months gaining input from citizens and organizational representatives using 3 methods: survey, focus groups, and key informant interviews.
- MAP Survey: We developed a survey which asked citizens for worries about aging and how they felt Orange County was already doing with addressing key aging issues. Surveys were distributed electronically and in hard copy through listservs, senior centers, county and town employers, libraries, and health service organizations. The surveys had 1,006 responses (860 from Orange County residents). Respondents were 73% urban and 27% rural, normally distributed in age with the most representation from the 65-74 age range, and the most represented income category was $25,000-$50,000 per household annually.
- Focus Groups: We held 14 focus groups throughout the County, with one focus group in Mandarin and another in Spanish. Building on the survey questions, we also asked participants to offer their “magic wand” solutions (i.e., solutions not bounded by time or money) to problems of aging that they were experiencing.
- Key Informant Interviews: The director of the Department on Aging, Janice Tyler, met individually with 34 people from 26 key stakeholder groups across the county to learn how organizations play a role in the Master Aging Plan and its implementation. We heard from and garnered support from the following sectors: government, healthcare, religious organizations, community services, and educational institutions.
Transcriptions from the focus groups and key informant interviews were summarized and analyzed for themes. Then we held two additional community meetings to ask two broad questions: Did we get it right? And what’s missing? Eighty participants attended these meetings, which were added to the existing data. The results of the analyzed community input fell into 5 domains that are roughly aligned with the WHO/AARP Age-Friendly Communities Initiative: Housing, Transportation and Outdoor Spaces, Social inclusion, Civic Participation and Employment, and Community Service and Health. Within each domain, issues and action steps were identified and prioritized.
5. The final step in getting community input and buy-in was to present our MAP data to the Steering Committee. The purpose of the meeting was to share our results and ask the committee to advise us about who else needed to be at the MAP table and what resources their organizations would commit to the MAP process.
Here are a few suggestions that other communities might take home from Orange County’s MAP experience:
- Get students on board and develop strong academic-community partnerships.
- Employ multiple methods to garner community input: surveys, focus groups, and interviews.
- Pursue every possible channel to get surveys out to the community, including electronic, pen and paper, listservs, and early voting.
- Create a steering committee with “teeth”, asking each organizational representative to publicly commit resources to support the MAP.
- Feed the results of the community assessment back to people who responded and do a “member check.”
- Start meetings by asking people “What are we missing and who are we missing?”
- Conclude meetings by asking people to describe their vision for an age-friendly community and then, ask what resources they will commit to making it so.
Creating environments that are truly age-friendly requires coordinated action from many sectors. Our experience of doing a “deep dive” into Orange County’s community was fun and inspiring. Throughout, we learned that conversations about aging can bring old and young people, public and private sectors together to ultimately make our community a great place to grow old.
About the Author: Dr. Cherie Rosemond is the Director of the Partnerships in Aging Program at UNC. Since 2012, Dr. Rosemond has served as a consultant to the Orange County Department on Aging. In this capacity, she has worked with a team of aging services providers, UNC students, and community members to develop and implement Orange County’s Master Aging Plan. Her focus areas include senior housing, transportation, and caregiving.