Online Surveys Engage Older
Adults in Community Planning

by Mia Oberlink

Among its many benefits, the Internet is facilitating direct communication across different sectors of society as never before. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has the opportunity to express his or her opinions and needs to a variety of audiences. Under the right circumstances, this can create positive change swiftly and effectively.

A recent New York Times article provides a good illustration of how female consumers are influencing cosmetic companies by participating in online conversations. In their efforts to stay fresh and up to date, cosmetic companies are constantly discontinuing old products and introducing new ones. The rub is that many women prefer the old products. Now, through company-run Internet chat lines and social media sites, women are expressing their preferences, and the cosmetic companies are listening. “Until recently, these consumers had little recourse other than to register complaints with manufacturers’ service centers,” writes the author. But now, thanks to the Internet, the companies are receiving timely input from customers and responding by reissuing the discontinued products. “It’s literally reshaping how the market is driven,” said one analyst. “The consequence of a poor decision could take 18 months to two years to filter back to the head office,” said one executive. “With social media you can take an instant read.”

This concept works not only in commerce but also in the public arena, where the Internet is facilitating communication between groups that in the past rarely had direct, instantaneous access to one another. The Internet allows like-minded people to find one another, exchange ideas, and become a collective force capable of influencing decision-making. Voters can easily reach their elected officials and make their opinions known; community residents can easily alert local government departments about pressing community problems and needs.

An Instant Read on Older Adults’ Opinions

Another effective, low-cost way to engage older people in civic matters is the online survey. The AdvantAge Initiative has developed a survey tool and planning process which allows a community to measure — and improve — its “aging friendliness.” Collecting older adults’ perceptions of and experiences in their communities becomes the first step toward involving them in the process of making their communities more livable.

The philosophy driving the AdvantAge Initiative approach is that community planning needs to include roles for the people most affected by decisions and actions that result from the planning process. Once older residents weigh in with their thoughts and opinions, they then become active stakeholders who can help implement whatever plans emerge. While this may seem patently obvious to readers, it’s surprising how often communities fail to take these important, necessary steps!

AdvantAge Online Surveys Reveal Problems

The AdvantAge Initiative team recently conducted an online survey in two urban neighborhoods that illustrates many of the points made so far. Over 1,200 adults age 60 and above responded to the survey. An extensive marketing campaign encouraging people to take the survey was conducted with the assistance of many neighborhood associations, providers of health and social services, elected officials, and others. In promoting the survey, these same groups became stakeholders in the survey process and joined an advisory group that helped interpret the survey findings.

The survey asked older people their opinions about what they thought about their neighborhoods and how they could be made better places for older people in which to live. Demographic characteristics (age, gender, marital status, living arrangements, health status) of the respondents were also collected along with information about their social networks, care needs, activity levels, and knowledge of available services.

The answers to questions that asked residents how they got around the neighborhoods proved particularly useful to the sponsoring organization whose mission was to advocate for improvements in the built environment (e.g., housing, sidewalks, streets) in addition to improving older adults’ knowledge of and access to existing services.

When all the responses were tallied, these key issues emerged: over 71% of respondents cited heavy traffic as a big problem in their neighborhood, 27% thought streets and sidewalks in the neighborhoods needed repair, and 15% felt that traffic lights allowed too little time for pedestrians to cross the streets. A follow-up series of open-ended questions asking what changes they would make to improve conditions for older people in the neighborhood identified the same issues. Here is a small sampling of some of the comments we received:

I live in an area with streets that permit truck traffic. Although there are recent changes that give pedestrians some more protection from autos and trucks, I am loath to cross the streets at night.

I would work to reduce traffic deaths to pedestrians and make this a safer neighborhood for seniors to walk in.

[I would] eliminate hazardous pedestrian crossing areas by having lights with a countdown, and varying them according to the crossing time needed, especially for seniors and people with disabilities.

Similar comments addressed pedestrian safety issues, including references to the dangers that bicyclists who don’t follow traffic rules pose to pedestrians, sidewalk curb cuts that need to be improved for people in wheelchairs and scooters, and uneven pavements that cause pedestrians to trip and fall. The overall instant read was that older people and people with disabilities in these two neighborhoods are very much at risk when they leave their homes and try to navigate the streets.

Because this was a physical safety issue involving traffic flow and pedestrian crossings, the feedback the survey had generated was immediately taken to the city Department of Transportation. Interestingly, we learned that the department already had plans to install pedestrian countdown signals in neighborhoods throughout the city. These signals let pedestrians know how many seconds they have to cross the street before the light changes, and many survey respondents had urged their use. While a decision to install the signals was in the works, the department had not yet prioritized which neighborhoods would get the new signals first. The survey findings and the respondents’ comments made a very compelling argument for beginning the installation process in the two neighborhoods surveyed.

…But It Also Reveals Community Assets

Through our surveys we also learned some important things about how older residents feel about their role in community life. Several of the respondents pointed out the need for seniors to get involved in making their neighborhoods better places to live. One respondent wrote, “More outreach programs [are] needed to make citizens aware of how they can personally get involved in community affairs and problems existing on a particular block in the neighborhood…” Another said, “[We need to] make a real effort to get 90% turnout in every election and make the politicians take our neighborhoods’ concerns seriously.” Still another said, “[We need to] identify the seniors in the community and actively seek their participation in community affairs.”

Survey findings and comments also strongly indicated that older individuals are seeking more personal involvement in meaningful activities. One respondent said, for example: “Programs for seniors should be more interesting and vibrant to keep them involved and growing, with many activities for them other than just games for the old! We need things that will keep us going.”

While we found that most of the survey respondents are active in many different ways, they seem to crave even more engagement in community life. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said they are working either part or full time, and another 11% said they work occasionally. Nearly half of the respondents said that they volunteer — tutoring or mentoring young people, supporting programs that deliver services to older adults, advocating for political causes, and in many other ways. The vast majority of respondents — 60% or more — had gotten together with friends or neighbors or engaged in some other kind of social activity in the past week. Yet while nearly the same percentage (60%) of respondents said that they are happy with their level of work, volunteering, and social activity, nearly 40% said that they would like to be doing more. Again, some respondent comments are good illustrations:

The senior center at [a local church] is wonderful. I hope the community leaders will give that program support and money. I should volunteer there... This survey made me realize that I don’t do enough for others. Thanks for making me realize it.

Another respondent wrote:

In my case, I am in good health and have a good business and financial background. If there was a [way to] put my services to some use for seniors, or for any other residents that might need them, I would consider that very productive for all parties concerned.

The Survey as a Call to Action

The AdvantAge Initiative survey not only gave us the opportunity to learn a great deal about older people and conditions in the two neighborhoods — it was also an invitation to older adults to get involved in making their communities better places to live, not only for themselves but also for residents of all ages. Judging from the number of completed surveys and extensive comments we received, many older people in these two neighborhoods want to have a voice and meaningful roles in community life, and taking the survey seriously and sharing their thoughts was a first step toward potential ongoing involvement in community improvement. Just knowing that others are interested in their opinions prompted one respondent to comment, “I appreciate that there are those who care enough to want to know about us through this survey.”

Older adults’ willingness to get involved seems to be there; the challenge, of course, will be to keep older adults engaged over the long term. This means taking active steps to remain attentive to their voices and periodically take that instant read of their concerns; mobilizing older adults by providing meaningful roles for those who want to actively work on resolving community issues; finding ways for interested older adults to use their knowledge and skills to help others; and last but certainly not least, celebrating their contributions whenever the opportunities arise.

Mia Oberlink, M.A., is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Home Care Policy and Research (CHCPR) of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. She manages the AdvantAge Initiative, a project that has collaborated with over 50 communities nationwide to measure their elder-friendliness and develop strategies to help older residents age in place. She is the Director of the technical assistance office that provides support to the grantees of the U.S. Administration on Community Living program, Community Innovations for Aging in Place (CIAIP). For more information about the AdvantAge Initiative, please visit their Web site: