The Path to Healthy Aging: Partnering with Aging Councils and Agencies

Together, Area Agencies on Aging and Councils on Aging constitute the public infrastructure designed to support America’s older adults. As such, they are natural partners for public libraries seeking to develop programs that lead communities “on the path to healthy aging,” as the ALA Health Literacy Toolkit puts it.

Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) were established under the Older Americans Act (OAA) in 1973 to respond to the needs of Americans 60 and over in every local community. According to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, they exist to “make it possible for older adults to ‘age in place’ in their homes and communities.” There are currently 622 such agencies across the nation; go here to find yours

Area Agencies on Aging connect together regional resources to support the quality of life of older Americans. Frequent collaborators are Councils on Aging, which are local entities. For instance, in Massachusetts, “Councils on Aging are the 350 municipal agencies that provide local outreach, social and health services, advocacy, information and referral for older adults, their families and caregivers.” The best way to find your local council on aging is through your state’s unit on aging

Older adults touching palms
Institutions that deal with aging – such as Area Agencies on Aging and Councils on Aging – are natural partners for public libraries.

Partnering with aging institutions

One example of what you can do with these entities is the Shrewsbury (Mass.) Public Library's Memory Café, “a gathering space for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their care partners to get together, socialize and enjoy a relaxing afternoon.” The idea originated from a discussion with the Shrewsbury Council on Aging. The Memory Café program model had already been developed in other institutions in the area, but never in a library setting, so they collaborated to tailor the idea for use in the library.

This is a perfect example of how aging councils and agencies can help you. When you reach out, they’ll be able to help you figure out which programs work well for older adults, and they’ll be able to connect you to resources and partners to develop those programs.

Kristen Jackson is the aging program coordinator for the seven-county region centered around the Raleigh-Durham area. She told me that, here in North Carolina, senior centers can apply to become Centers of Excellence, a designation by the North Carolina Department of Aging and Adult Services, by collaborating with community partners. Part of her job focuses on helping local senior centers identify, form and sustain partnerships with agencies like public libraries. 

Bringing evidence-based health programs to your library 

Similarly, where I live in Greensboro, N.C., I have worked with Laura Bolton Plunkett, the health promotion coordinator of the Area Agency on Aging that serves 12 counties around Greensboro/Winston-Salem. One of the services Laura offers are Age Well Community Programs: by partnering with local groups Laura and her staff and volunteers offer evidence-based health programs that focus on balance loss prevention, Tai Chi for Arthritis, living healthy with diabetes, and living healthy with chronic pain, among other topics. According to their website, “The workshops are provided for two and a half hours, once a week, for six weeks, in community settings such as senior centers, churches, libraries, and hospitals."

The workshops have been especially successful in rural and small libraries, where there may not be any other senior center in which the programs could be offered. For instance, A Matter of Balance programs are regularly offered by the Area Agency on Aging at the Walkertown Branch of the Forsyth County Public Library, which serves a small community of 4,675 residents. 

Planning for success

In addition to helping you identify partners and provide evidence-based programming, aging institutions can also help your library strategically plan to better serve your aging population. That is exactly what happened at the West Tisbury Library in Massachusetts.

In 2016, the library partnered with the Up-Island Council on Aging to form a small group of locals who met regularly to discuss topics of aging and healthy lifestyles. This informal senior advisory council (similar to the teen advisory groups that are becoming extremely popular in public libraries) helped the library revitalize its programming offerings to better meet the needs and interests of older adults. As a result of this strategic planning, the library started offering health programs like Yoga and Breath, Balance with Chi Kung (a variant of Tai Chi), and hand massage sessions. 

The library also started offering safe places for frank discussions about mortality; popular programs have been on green burials and what the library calls Death Cafés, a space to engage in frank conversations about dying and bereavement. The library nurtures the bodies as well as the minds of participants. “Many times, when we offer various programs, we serve homemade soup, bread and fruit,” library director Beth Kramer said. “We are really building community and inviting nourishing talks about shared concerns.” All of this energy emanated out of the library’s partnership with the local Council on Aging. 

Another way to partner with aging institutions is around feeding seniors. In Iowa, the Heritage Area Agency on Aging partners with the Marion Public Library to make nutritious meals and wellness programs accessible and affordable for older adults. In Indiana, the Thornton Public Library teams up with the local Council on Aging to offer Meals & More programs five days a week for residents aged 60 and older. 

Reach out!

If you’re trying to offer more programs to create a path to healthy aging in your community, reach out to your local Area Agency on Aging as well as your local Council on Aging. They exist to help you offer high-quality programs.

Do these people know that “librarians can lead you on the path to healthy aging?” If not, tell them! They will most likely be thrilled to work with you and your staff to brainstorm program ideas, connect you to partners, and even offer programs for you at your library.