Libraries Offering Services to Seniors During COVID-19 Pandemic

Emily Stochl

Staff Writer

Emily is a proud Midwesterner, living in Iowa. Reading literary fiction has always been her favorite. She also enjoys yoga and tending to her hundreds of houseplants -- you might say Emily is a bit “crunchy granola." She is the producer and host of a podcast about vintage and second-hand style, called Pre-Loved Podcast. She’s really into sustainability, and old things! IG: @emilymstochl

Public libraries provide so many valuable and necessary programs for our communities, beyond providing books. Some public libraries provide English language learning services, preserve genealogy or local history, teach practical skills, help with career searches, raise awareness about environmental issues, operate bookmobiles, help immigrants earn citizenship, and so much more. 

Though many public libraries have either been closed off-and-on during the COVID-19 pandemic, or have had to drastically alter their services due to health and safety precautions, libraries have adapted and continue to offer their valuable services within our communities. 

We’ve written about how libraries have adapted their children’s programming to reach young people during the pandemic, but what about programs for senior populations? What are some of the innovative services libraries are offering seniors during COVID-19?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) (CDC), eight out of ten deaths related to COVID-19 are individuals aged 65 years and older. Because of the especially high health risks, seniors and senior centers have had to take strict precautions for protection. While some seniors are able to access virtual socializing via cell phones and Zoom, others who are less familiar with these technologies are at risk of being left out as face-to-face contact is limited. As a result, seniors have become especially socially isolated during the pandemic. 

Libraries have been hard at work to combat this isolation and continue to serve the senior demographic (safely) during the pandemic. 

On June 17, 2020 the The Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLSM) even provided a free online training, which over 700 libraries viewed live. David J. Kelsey of the St. Charles (IL) Public Library District (SCPLD) and Glenna Godinsky of the Gail Borden (IL) Public Library District presented several ideas for how to safely serve the senior demographic during COVID-19.

Today we’ll share some program ideas suggested by the NNLSM, and program ideas that have been implemented by other public libraries across the country. We hope these ideas will help your community and public library reach senior audiences, and if you are involved in an innovative library program for seniors, we would love to hear about it. Tweet to us at @BookRiot.

Pen Pal Programs

The Bryan-College Station Public Library System in Texas launched a pen pal program in collaboration with area senior living communities. Community volunteers signed up to be paired with a senior, and they’ve written letters during the lockdowns. The program is structured so volunteers can be paired with up to five seniors at a time, if they choose, and may opt out at any time. The library also shares weekly letter writing prompts to help inspire those who need ideas for writing their letters. 

The program has been a huge success! The library says that 24 hours after they launched the program, they already had enough volunteers signed up to serve all the seniors who were awaiting pen pals in their area. 

Call-In Programming

To implement this program, create a “hotline” number that seniors can call, on their own time, to hear a new recording using different library materials for content each week. Recordings could include poetry or short story readings, a joke of the week, or other lighthearted topics. 

For example, the Park Ridge Public Library in Illinois launched the Library Line, which is a phone number anyone can dial to hear a recorded song, riddle, or message from staff, with new recordings swapped in every day. Each librarian’s recording on their specific day is different. For example: Librarian Matt does “Movie Monday”; on Tuesday it’s “What Roseanne’s Reading”; Wednesdays feature “Local History with Lori”; on Thursdays it’s “The Singing Librarian with Heidi”; Fridays feature “Riddles with Larry”; Saturdays are “Books/Movies/TV with Cathy”; and Sundays offer “Inspirational Quotes with Laura.”

Now, the Park Ridge Public Library librarian, Heidi, is a trained singer in addition to being a librarian, but experts from the NNLSM training assured the rest of us out there that the call-in programs don’t require exceptional talent or production. This program is about offering something simple to briefly brighten someone’s day, and it doesn’t have to be perfect or serious. 

Programs on Zoom

We’re all familiar with Zoom programming, but research has found that Zoom programs work particularly well when done as group programs at senior facilities. This way, library staff can test the technology with the facility staff ahead of time to make sure the visual and sound is good — the program should be displayed on a big screen TV so seniors can gather around to view and hear from the screen. 

Since these are group programs, it’s suggested the program topic should encourage conversation among the group. Topics that trigger reminiscence are especially great, such as discussions about classic movies or TV shows, baseball, or familiar travel locations.

Facebook Live 

Facebook Live programs are fun because they are often multi-generational — anyone who is following the library’s Facebook page can tune in for the program. They can be short programs, offered at various times throughout the day. The Gail Borden (IL) Public Library District, for example, offers short Facebook Live programs three times a day: 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 7 p.m., with different activities for each session. 

Crafts work very well on Facebook Live because they are visual and interactive. Plus, crafts span age groups very well — almost everyone likes to make something with their hands! Again, it’s suggested to turn to nostalgic themes for craft inspiration, because nostalgia sparks memory and conversation among seniors. Consider themes like: baseball, the wild west, national parks, nature or gardening, cars, etc. As with the hotline or Zoom programs, short readings are also fun on Facebook Live. Programs could include poetry readings, folklore and short stories, or a daily joke. 

The NNLSM training suggests that retired teachers or historians might be willing to volunteer to help you create these crafts or programs on subjects that interest them. 

Video Programs for Memory Care Patients

Music and memory are tightly linked. Even if a memory care patient has lost their verbal expression, singing or listening to music can still brighten their day. Sing-alongs can still be hosted on Zoom or Facebook Live. Familiar or classic songs are best because they trigger nostalgia. 

Librarians can also share colorful children’s books or photos from interesting travel destinations, as looking at beautiful pictures can often stimulate the mind despite memory loss. 

Pre-Recorded Video Programming

If it’s difficult for your library to arrange live programming on Zoom or Facebook, consider pre-recorded video programming. Again, videos don’t have to be perfect quality — what’s important is that the community member speaking in the video is friendly and compassionate. These programs are about human connection, not perfection! 

Pre-recorded video programs could include virtual tours of museums, national parks, or zoos, short lectures, or readings. These programs are a great opportunity to partner with other organizations in your community who may also be struggling to reach a senior demographic. 

Federal Funding Available for Senior Programming

Keep in mind, there are some grants and rebates available to help extend wi-fi into senior centers to make some of the above senior programs, which require streaming, possible. 

Additionally, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has offered $13.8 million in grant funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Grants for Museums and Libraries, and some of this funding will go to interactive programming for seniors. 

For example, the University of Iowa Library and the Stanley Museum of Art, won a $222,327 grant for their Senior Living Communities Program, “which brings art programming and interactive activities to seniors in long-term care facilities in Iowa.” Their program is called “Connected for Life: Object-based Digital Programming to Foster Active Minds for Senior Living Communities,” and it will offer themed online programs — both live-streamed and pre-recorded video — as well as activities and collection guides. Program topics will include “art, archaeology, natural history, history, and archives from the university’s library and museum collections.”

Helping Schedule Vaccinations

Librarians are even helping their communities with vaccine roll-out! Community members who need assistance scheduling their COVID-19 vaccine can contact the Johnson County Public Library in Indiana for assistance registering their vaccination appointment at a public health facility. The library has reached out to 66,000 community members, and scheduled 1,300 vaccine appointments — primarily seniors at this time — for community members. 

As always, libraries continue to impress us with their ability to serve the community, despite all challenges. We’d love to hear what senior programming your library has implemented during this time, and if that programming will continue in some form post-pandemic closures.