Getting the general public to take notice of aging issues is difficult enough. But what about drawing attention to one of the least visible segments of the aging population?
That was the challenge for Seniors Count, a Partnership launched in 2001 in Manchester, N.H. One of the partnership’s goals was to boost the visibility of frail seniors — those aging citizens with reduced health and mobility who are increasingly in need of assistance.
Seniors Count saw this segment of the aging population as one that had virtually fallen through the cracks of the local elder care infrastructure. “Frail seniors are losing out tremendously in our community,” says Arlene Kershaw, project director of the Seniors Count Partnership.
Seniors Count notes that nearly 40% of frail seniors have significant difficulties caring from themselves. And since more than half of the city’s frail seniors live alone, that population is much more likely to suffer from accidents, isolation and depression.
As a result, the Partnership decided that, in addition to its other efforts, a broad marketing campaign was needed to help spread the message that frail seniors needed more assistance — and attention — from the local community. “We wanted to develop a campaign to drive values toward the fact that our communities should be helping our frail seniors,” says Kershaw.
The “Imagine a City…” campaign worked to bring aging issues onto the community radar, and to offer a blueprint for what can happen if local citizens pitched in to aid the aging population. The goal: To help frail seniors live independently while also staying healthy and safe — and maintaining a high quality of life.
The marketing campaign grew to include television, radio and print advertising, but also moved well beyond traditional marketing avenues. It focused on reaching thousands of schoolchildren, and also took time to discuss issues with service providers in the elder care industry. “What we were able to do is start the dialogue,” says Kershaw.
Serving a need
Manchester is one of New Hampshire’s most densely populated cities. Like most of the United States, Manchester’s aging population is growing quickly, and is expected to double by 2020. And among that population, frail seniors are expected to grow at an even faster rate during that time.
But Manchester’s aging population also is struggling against some difficult economic realities: While less than 10% of New Hampshire’s older population live in Manchester, the city is home to more than 15% of the state’s seniors living below the poverty line.
Those financial constraints make it difficult for many frail seniors to cover the costs of services ranging from health care to regular upkeep of their houses. Indeed, the partnership found that this population receives relatively sporadic health care services, and have difficulty with even the simplest of household chores, from changing a light bulb to shoveling snow from the front porch.
And Kershaw says this population hasn’t often factored into public policy decisions. For example, zoning rules that disallowed multifamily units in certain districts made it difficult for family members to maintain in-law apartments to help care for elderly relatives. And while a new brick sidewalk in Manchester’s downtown was aesthetically pleasing, it also posed a tripping hazard to frail seniors. “These issues aren’t on people’s mindsets,” says Kershaw. “If we can bring awareness to this, it would be a way to not only start public dialogue, but actually address some of these issues.”
To jumpstart that discussion, the Partnership developed a public service advertising campaign that focused on seniors suffering from dementia and memory loss. The ads urged citizens to call their elderly relatives and to check in with elderly neighbors, using the tagline, “Remember, Seniors Count.” “So many people know someone with Alzheimer’s — maybe it’s an uncle or a neighbor,” says Kershaw. “And it’s the community’s responsibility to [take care] of them. These are our parents and our friends.”
A second ad focused on the dangers of falling for frail seniors. Whether caused by a lack of strength, dizziness or poor vision, falls are the number one reason for unplanned hospitalization for seniors. The Partnership offered action steps citizens could take to help elderly relatives or neighbors avoid unnecessary falls in their homes, from making sure their home has adequate lighting to stabilizing slippery rugs.
Seeking new channels
Seniors Count was pleased with local reaction to the advertising campaign. But rather than let those ads stand alone, the Partnership developed an even broader marketing strategy to reach the local community.
The Partnership began contributing a blog to the website of the local daily newspaper. The blog, which generated more than 1,200 visits a month, offered tips to help out the frail senior population. One holiday-themed blog post offered gift ideas for frail seniors. “It wasn’t talking about gifts like sweaters or pajamas,” says Kershaw. “Instead, it was the gift of time — to make sure these people have rides to church, or to have lunch with them.”
The Partnership also moved its message into local schools, reaching more than 3,000 students with a learning curriculum that taught young people about the challenges faced by frail seniors. From trying to listen with cotton balls in their ears to looking at the world through Vaseline-covered sunglasses, the aim was to let the children walk in the shoes of the elder population. “A lot of young people aren’t around old people that much,” says Kershaw. “So how are we going to expect them to understand this population? They need to understand what it’s like to age.”
Finally, the Seniors Count Partnership each year has addressed the local network of providers for the aging population. (This year’s event is entitled “Making Seniors Visible,” and includes policy and advocacy discussions.) The annual symposium typically offers real-life examples of Manchester seniors who are being left behind by the system. The reason: Many of these service organizations have such defined roles that it’s difficult for workers to see areas where senior clients are struggling. For example, a visiting nurse may notice that a dark hallway poses a safety risk, but isn’t allowed to change a burned-out light bulb. “You might have three or four agencies working with one person, but that person is still falling through the cracks,” says Kershaw. “And people in the industry don’t know about it.”
Partnering has been a key element of the Seniors Count marketing campaign, as well as the group’s many other efforts.
For example, Seniors Count has also partnered with nearly two dozen organizations to offer direct financial assistance to frail seniors through a flexible spending initiative. Partners were able to tap into a pool of funds through Seniors Count to help pay for a variety of goods and services, from a new vacuum cleaner and wintertime heating fuel to furnace repairs or transportation to the doctor. “We just said any agency that touches frail seniors will have access to this money to get their clients the products and services that are needed,” says Kershaw.
Meanwhile, the Seniors Count Partnership recently joined forces with the Community Action Program in southern New Hampshire to create a volunteer capacity for its initiatives. Using a training program the agency already had in place, Seniors Count was able to quickly start building a cadre of volunteers to work with frail seniors. “It was a win-win-win situation,” says Kershaw of the partnership. “It was really all about trying to get away from that silo effect.”
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