Understanding the Community

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Guiding Principle # 1

Effective NORC programs are built on a thorough understanding of the community and the residents who live there.

Actions and Considerations

Consider the resources you need to undertake the process of understanding the community. Because information-gathering is so integral to developing a responsive NORC program, it is important to set aside resources and time for that work. But you will also need to be realistic about what you can reasonably undertake at every stage.

Decide what you need to learn. Understanding the NORC and its surrounding community means capturing as full a picture as possible about its character, history, physical composition, and resources. To understand what makes it tick today, you’ll want to learn more about:

  • Housing Characteristics.
  • Resident characteristics.
  • Formal and informal leaders.
  • Resources (for example, medical and other health-related facilities; social services; civic, cultural, and educational organizations; gathering places; clubs; volunteer opportunities/services; parks; houses of worship; and information sources).
  • Residents’ perceptions of, and experiences in, the community.
  • Environmental factors that facilitate or hinder aging in place (for example, distance to shopping and other services, condition of sidewalks, traffic issues, and noise).
  • Transportation options.

Put seniors at the center of the information-gathering process. You can’t understand a NORC if you don’t seek out the voice of the seniors who live there. As longtime residents, they have a valuable role to play in educating you about the dynamics of the community. Draw on their experiences and perceptions to gain:

  • Historical knowledge of the community and how it has evolved over time.
  • Perspectives on what it is like to grow old in the community.
  • Insights about how change happens—or gets stalled.
  • Understanding of their needs for health care support, housing modifications, transportation, and other services.

Example: The NORC Without Walls (NORC-WOW) program, located in a neighborhood of one- and two-family homes in Floral Park, Queens, New York, began to collect information about its community by organizing focus groups among seniors who were already known to service providers. Insights about how the neighborhood had changed over time and what it was like to grow old there emerged from those discussions. To build on that information, focus group participants walked the community in pairs, knocking on the doors of people they did not know. This approach allowed them to add to their baseline knowledge while broadening the pool of senior residents who become engaged.

Tap into the knowledge and insights of people who are already familiar with local issues. As you begin to put together a team of people committed to designing a NORC program, find out what they already know about the community, and ask where you can go to learn more. That can prevent you from duplicating other valuable information-seeking efforts.

Reach beyond the usual cast of social service and health care providers by talking to:

  • Community-based organizations (including senior centers, community centers, food pantries, neighborhood groups, YMCAs, and other safety net providers).
  • Public sector institutions (schools, libraries, post offices, and police and fire departments).
  • Places of worship.
  • Retail establishments (supermarkets, restaurants, pharmacies, beauty salons, hardware stores, clothing stores, and thrift stores).
  • Offices (banks, law firms, and insurance brokers).

Use time-tested tools to gather information. An array of useful tools is available to help community groups design and conduct basic surveys, run focus groups, and analyze their findings. Drawing on these resources, with support from seniors and other partners as they become involved in the NORC program, is a great way to learn to work as a team.

Conducting Surveys Guide Informal Discussions with Residents

Focus Groups Guide Key Informant Interview Guide

Example: To learn more about East Point, located just outside Atlanta, the Fulton County Council on Aging trained 25 seniors to canvass the community. Wearing identical T-shirts and carrying official identification, these seniors used a 25-question assessment form to ask other residents about sources of medical care, participation in community activities, concerns about safety, and transportation challenges.

The canvassers did more than solicit information. They also provided information about basic services, such as securing property tax exemptions and renewing drivers’ licenses, as well as distributing coupons for lunch at a nearby senior center.

Generally, a police officer or firefighter was in tow. Their participation encouraged the residents to open their doors to strangers, and provided an opportunity to check smoke detector batteries and suggest ways for improving safety in the home.

Ultimately, the canvassers completed 200 full assessments and left information behind at 1,500 homes. Using their findings, East Point was able to design a NORC program that emphasized safety, transportation, and home repairs. Read more about the East Point program.

Some NORC programs also involve a university partner to help them learn more. Local universities with graduate programs in gerontology, social work, urban planning, or other social sciences can help stretch your own capacities. But NORC staff should stay in control—be sure that your academic partner is doing work you need, rather than serving abstract research purposes.

Keep in Mind

Everyone benefits when seniors become part of the process of collecting information. The NORC program gains a better understanding of the worlds they inhabit, and seniors are more fully woven into the fabric of the community. Continue to Guiding Principle #2

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