Understanding the Community

The Art of Participatory Research

Doing with older adults, not for them, is fundamental to the NORC framework—and that begins with the information-gathering that is essential to program planning. “Knowing the seniors helps us keep our eyes on the prize,” says Regine Denis, program manager of aging services for the Fulton County Office of Aging. “It helps refocus the group because we can say, ‘But the seniors have told us…’”

Getting started

A flurry of activities brought together the three partners in the East Point NORC Program. As part of its broader efforts to modernize aging services through the RWJF Community Partnerships for Older Adults program, the Atlanta Regional Commission interviewed 1,200 older adults in its ten-county region—and discovered that much of the population was less interested in traditional services, such as home care or Meals on Wheels, and more interested in creating a vibrant community that would help them remain independent.

Meanwhile, staff members at the Fulton County Office on Aging were frustrated that the Bowden Senior Multipurpose Facility in East Point was not being used to its full potential and were seeking opportunities to reach more seniors. At about the same time, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta began developing its proposal for federally earmarked NORC program dollars.

This confluence of events brought the three agencies together to talk about new opportunities to serve the community. “We looked at the NORC model and said, ‘Why don’t we try this out in one community and see how it goes?’” explains Kathryn Lawler, then project director of ARC’s Aging Atlanta initiative. “We knew that we would have to begin with a better understanding of the community.”

The step-by-step process of learning involved small-group discussions, door-to-door surveys, and community mapping.

Small-group discussions

The Atlanta Regional Commission, which already had an extensive network of local ties, reached out to elected officials in the community, including the mayor, to identify other formal and informal leaders with information, insight, and a willingness to get involved.

Armed with their suggestions, ARC began a series of focused, small-group discussions that involved people like the police and fire chiefs, the director of the library, the head of the housing authority, and other public officials. They were joined by the managers of the local bank and the supermarket, and by the owners of a hardware store and a restaurant—people who had personal and longstanding relationships in the community. Older residents—both those who are vocal and those who tend to be quieter—contributed their perspectives as well.

“We wanted every major outlet that interacts with the community to be part of the conversation,” says Ms. Lawler.

Ultimately, some 200 people lent their voices to the process. “We tried to capture as broad and complete a picture of older adults living in the community as possible,” Ms. Lawler explains. “People have lived in East Point a long time and have a rich history there. We asked everyone to tell us their side of the story.”

One particularly important insight emerged: There was more to learn. “We realized we had to get more specific data about what older adults need and want,” Ms. Lawler says.

Knocking on doors

Planning an outreach strategy to collect that data came next, and it took a tremendous amount of energy. A nonprofit aging advocacy organization from Fulton County was brought on board and agreed to help recruit older adults to walk through the neighborhoods talking to East Point’s older residents. Ultimately, 25 seniors were trained to knock on doors. “It was all about seniors helping seniors,” says Ms. Denis.

Over a six-week period, two-person teams canvassed the community, wearing identical T-shirts, carrying identification, and armed with a 25-question assessment form. Among other questions, they asked about sources of medical care, participation in community activities, concerns about safety, and transportation challenges.

But the door-knocking was not just about “taking” from the older adults. Volunteers came with information about basic services, such as securing property tax exemptions and renewing drivers’ licenses, and they left coupons for lunch at the nearby Bowden Senior Multipurpose Facility.

Generally, a police officer or firefighter was in tow. The East Point public safety departments are exceptionally community-oriented and saw the door-knocking exercise as an opportunity to learn more about the populations they serve. Their participation encouraged residents to open their doors to strangers and gave them a chance to check smoke detector batteries and suggest ways to improve safety in the home.

The teams eventually completed 200 full assessments and left information behind at 1,500 homes. “We took the pulse of the community,” says Ms. Denis. “That is really how we developed our programs. We heard from seniors about why safety was such a big issue. We learned about the transportation challenges. And we actually saw the conditions in some of these homes and the repairs they needed.”

Community mapping

Community mapping was another piece of the East Point assessment process. Aerial photography and the Geographic Information System (GIS) helped bring the community alive. GIS is a growing technology that combines database information with geographic features, such as community facilities, streets and census tracts. Through this interactive technology, residents were able to point to their streets and zoom in on the bus routes that were available. Mapping census and health data by neighborhood created a visual portrait of the challenges and opportunities the NORC program would likely encounter.

“We wanted to get away from a traditional list of needs to a description of needs in the physical environment,” Ms. Lawler says. “Instead of talking generically about transportation, we wanted to address it within a neighborhood context.” That meant getting very specific information—not just “We need transportation,” but “We need a bus that will take us from this point to that point at these hours.”

That process had an added benefit as well—getting the GIS Department of the Atlanta Regional Commission involved. “We engaged the GIS people in aging issues in ways that had not happened before. This let us find a partner that we had not previously accessed,” says Ms. Lawler.

Setting priorities

A 15-member Neighborhood Leadership Council of community representatives—including members of the local police and fire departments, faith-based organizations, the neighborhood association, Americorps, and other community-based organizations—took the lead in sorting through the findings. As a result, the Leadership Council was able to identify four key challenges to aging in place. The Leadership Council established its priorities—public awareness, public safety, transportation, and home repair—and the East Point NORC Program got underway. Continued...

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