A critical part of designing a successful age-friendly community initiative is to learn what it’s like for older people to age in your community and to learn what assets your community has available to help meet the needs of older folks and what challenges your community’s “built environment” may bring to older adults.

A community assessment can take many forms and can include an age-friendly asset inventory (asset mapping), community forums or listening session, an examination of demographic data (demographic profile), focus groups, and traditional surveys. These assessments can be done sequentially, or one at a time, building on each other.  There’s no right order to do them.

Community asset mapping will help you to know what structural aspects of your community are available to help meet the needs of older adults and identify aspects of the structural environment that create barriers.

The purpose of an age-friendly needs assessment is to collect information about what older residents need and want to age safely and securely in the place where they want to live. Each community has strengths that make it a great place to live and has areas for improvement. The needs assessment provides needed information for your aging-friendly initiative to build on existing community strengths to address gaps in services.

In addition to identifying the unique strengths and weaknesses of your community for aging in place, surveys and focus groups can help raise individual, group, and community support for the aging-friendly work you are about to begin.

Is there a single “right” survey or focus group guide to use to conduct a needs assessment? No. The way local communities define their aging-friendly efforts will shape the methods used for assessment. The “right” tools for your initiative will be determined by the information you want to get.

Conducting a needs assessment is a large process, but it can be done entirely with volunteers. However, the work is easier if you have the help of people with experience conducting needs assessments. Some strategies for finding help include:

1.     Finding out if your municipality has the resources to give you some help from their staff.

2.     Collaboration with a college or university. Students in planning and advanced degree programs are often looking for ways to integrate their research with community work.

3.     Meeting with other communities that have completed a needs assessment for their aging-friendly initiative. Learning about their experiences and accessing the expertise developed by other initiatives can help you avoid pitfalls of the process and get ideas for making your own effort successful.

4.     Applying for grant funding to hire a professional with experience conducting needs assessments.

5.     Find someone in your community who has the skills and time to donate to the process.

As part of the assessment, you may want to complete a demographic profile and explore data gathered about local organizations, host a listening session or community forum to get feedback about aging services from residents of all ages, administer a survey, and/or conduct focus groups.

Asset Mapping

Community asset mapping can help you learn about the services, programs, and organizations available in your community. It will help your steering committee identify community strengths and use those strengths to meet the needs and preferences of older residents. Completing an asset map is vital to develop your age-friendly initiative.

For instance, in the needs assessment you learn that older residents want more socialization opportunities. During the community asset mapping exercise, you learn that a local church has rooms it is willing to let you use for activities during the week. Asset mapping can also show barriers in the structural environment that make it harder for older residents to remain fully engaged in the community– for instance, maybe your only library has stairs and no access ramp.

The resources on the right will help you to complete a community asset map for your community.

Community Forums and Listening Sessions

Listening sessions and community forums are well-publicized meetings for residents of all ages to engage in a discussion about aging in the community.  These facilitated discussions can be a first step toward understanding community perception of the strengths of the community to support an aging population and to learn how community residents prefer to address the needs that are identified. The forums can increase awareness in the community of the benefits of making a more aging friendly community and can identify community partners willing to help with the initiative. They can also help your steering committee to identify barriers to making aging-friendly changes in the community

To conduct a community forum or listening session:

  • Identify a meeting place that is central to the community and easy to access. Schedule the meeting in the evening to increase participation by residents who are in the work-force.

  • Schedule 50-90 minutes for a forum and arrange light refreshments for participants to enjoy during the forum. Your goal is to make people feel welcome and comfortable.

  • Publicize the event widely and recruit community leaders to participate in the forum.

  • Recruit a moderator who has experience running community forums and who is well-respected in the community.

  • At the beginning of the session, introduce the need for your aging-friendly initiative and work to date. Provide an opportunity for people interested in helping with the initiative to learn more or to volunteer.

  • At the beginning of the session, read the ground rules including respect for other people’s opinions and a time limit for each speaker’s comments.

  • Record discussion on a flip chart. Make a tape recording of the listening session. After the forum has been transcribed, create a summary that can be distributed to participants who indicated they were interested in learning more about the initiative and that can be used in your needs assessment.

  • Prepare questions for the forum. You will want to include a discussion of the strengths of the community for residents of all ages, areas for improvement, and a discussion of community resources for addressing any needs that are identified and barriers to addressing needs.

  • During the last 10 minutes of the forum, conclude with a summary of the information you gained with emphasis on the action planning ideas that came out of the forum.

  • Make sure to let folks know what the next step is in the process and how they can learn about any outcomes or actions that stem from the discussion.

Designing and Administering Surveys

Surveys allow you to collect information from residents that, if you get a high enough response rate, can be generalized. People answer in the privacy of their own home so may be willing to share their concerns about sensitive topics, like aging in place. You can use an existing survey or you can design a survey to collect more detailed information about the age-friendly priorities in your community. A well-designed survey with questions that address local realities is one key to creating an action plan that will make your community more aging friendly.
The goal of an aging-friendly survey is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a community’s resources to meet the needs and preferences of older residents. Questions that identify needs should be paired with questions that can lead to recommendations. For example, if you are interested in learning about the resources residents are using to meet their need for socialization, you may ask a person-centered questions, such as:

Do you have family or friends in the area who could be thought of as a support network (people to whom you can turn when help is needed)?

With response options: Yes, No or I don’t know

When you go out, what do you normally do?

With response options:
Go for walks
Go to church
Go to the library
Attend a club or  hobby group
Participate in group sport or recreation
Take a class
Visit friends or family
Go shopping or do errands
Attend public events
Participate in planned excursions or outings
Play cards
Play Bingo
Go to a restaurant
I don’t go out

This can be followed by a resource question that can lead to an actionable item. For example:
If you would like to socialize more, what prevents you?

With response options:
Mobility issues
No one to go with
Find out about events too late
Lack of transportation
Lack of opportunities
Events scheduled at times I am not available
Too costly
Other: _____________________

By asking person-centered and resource questions, the needs assessment will learn if there is an unmet need for socialization, will know what socialization opportunities are available to residents and will know the barriers to access. All of that information is needed to create an action plan for the aging-friendly initiative that will result in meaningful changes.

Strategies for creating a locally-based survey:

1.    Make a list of locally-relevant issues you want to cover in your community survey. For example, a rural community may be less interested in assessing satisfaction with public transportation and be more interested in learning if people have access to any form of alternative transportation. Cities with public transportation, on the other hand, may be interested in learning how well the current system is meeting the needs of older folks.

2.    Examine a few surveys used in other places. Most surveys include similar questions. Looking at more than three may not result in the creation of a stronger survey.

3.    Choose a preliminary set of questions that provide answers to the issues that are important in your community.

4.    After creating an initial list of questions that meet your need for information, think about how long you want your survey to be. Generally, a survey should not take more than 15 minutes to complete. When a survey is too long, respondents may fill our only part of the survey or they may not fill it out at all. An additional consideration is how you are going to distribute the survey. Are you mailing the survey to all residents in town? If so, what is your budget for mailing and printing? Extra pages mean extra postage. Are you including your survey as an insert in a local paper? If so, you may be limited to two pages—front and back of one page. Will the survey be available online? Are there limitations to the online survey tool you are planning to use?

5.    Read through the draft questions and eliminate questions that are redundant and questions that cannot produce information that will be helpful in your aging friendly community planning.

6.    Develop a “sales pitch” for your survey. One way to increase your response rate is to explain why each person’s response is important to the community. The “sales pitch” should be distributed with your survey, with directions for completing and returning the survey.

7.    Find a group willing to pilot test your survey who are not familiar with your aging friendly initiative. You don’t have to find a large group of people to test the survey—just a small group is enough to tell you if some questions are confusing or irrelevant to the local context. Ask them to tell you how long it took to complete the survey. Working with your committee, fine-tune the survey instrument.

8.    Distribute your survey. If you are not doing a direct mailing to every town resident, brainstorm ways to maximize distribution. Does your community have a local newsletter that can include information about the survey? Are there buildings where people typically go—the library, churches, stores? Are there formal or informal groups—such as a knitting club, lifelong learning program, or exercise group– that are willing to help you get the word out about your survey?

9.     Collect your results. It is a good idea to make a notation on the survey that people should return completed surveys by a specific date.

Focus Groups

Focus groups allow you to get detailed information from a small number of people. They help to understand motivation and provide a platform to hear people’s experiences aging in the community. Done correctly, focus groups can be empowering for older residents who participate.
Taking the time to conduct focus groups also assures local residents that the age friendly initiative will provide programs and services that people actually want in the community—not what others think the community needs.

Focus group include a smaller number of people than community forums and listening sessions. They are usually limited to 8-10 people—enough to generate rich discussion but small enough that everyone has a chance to be heard. Participant comments stimulate and influence the thinking of others in the group. Some people change their thinking about an issue as a result of hearing the ideas of other residents. The discussion is a free-flow of ideas but is structured by a set of carefully chosen questions that reflect the community context and the information needs of the aging-friendly initiative.

Oftentimes focus groups are limited to people who share a common characteristic. For example, you may plan a focus group for any of the following groups of people: middle aged residents, residents age 75+, newly retired residents, older adults living in income-based housing, care partners, older residents in different neighborhoods, and/or service providers.  The target groups that you want to hear from in focus group interviews varies from one community to the next. Many aging-friendly community needs assessments include more than one focus group to find out what different groups of people in the community perceive the strengths and weaknesses of the community for aging in place.

1.    Decide who you want to invite to a focus group. As part of your needs assessment process you may be interested in the opinions of different groups of people. The first step is to decide which groups you need to hear from, decide how many focus groups you want to conduct, and then decide how to recruit participants to each group.

2.    Arrange for light refreshments consider offering incentives for people who come to the focus group. Incentives are a way to thank people for giving up their time to attend the group and for sharing their opinions. Typically, a $10 or $20 incentive is offered to participants.

3.    Find an experienced facilitator who is familiar with aging-friendly initiatives and has experience conducting focus groups.

4.    Arrange for one or two people to act as “recorders” who will take notes during the focus groups. Alternatively, with group permission, tape record the session and transcribe it.

5.    Find a place and time that is likely to be convenient for the group you are targeting. For example, if you are interested in the opinions of middle-aged adults, you will want to schedule the group at a time that is less likely to conflict with work schedules.

6.    Make a list of 5-10 broad questions that you want to include in the discussion. See the sample focus group guides that have been used by communities in northern New England for ideas.

7.    The facilitator starts each focus group by explaining the purpose for the interview and stating the ground rules. Here are a few hints for conducting a focus group:

•    Before asking focus group questions, ask an ice breaker and give everyone a chance to answer.
•    Always remain neutral—restrain from nodding, raising an eyebrow, or agreeing or disagreeing with a comment.
•    Encourage everyone to participate.
•    Ask participants for an example or for clarification if answers are ambiguous.
•    Use active listening—paraphrase and summarize long or ambiguous answers.
•    Tactfully keep the conversation moving along so that all of the questions in the interview guide are covered.
•    When all questions have been covered ask if anyone has additional comments to make.
•    If using an incentive, distribute at the end of the focus group session.

8.    Write up focus group results and share with participants. If you have taped the focus group, create a transcript of the interview. Analyze the transcript and observational notes for primary themes and write up a report about what you have learned from the focus group.

9.    Some of the focus group participants develop an interest in helping with your aging-friendly initiative. Focus groups can be a recruiting tool!