Assessing the Age-Friendliness of Your Community

Jun 17, 2015

By Angel Bourgoin, PhD, JSI | MA Healthy Aging Collaborative website

A crucial step in improving the age-friendliness of your community is to identify its current strengths and areas for improvement. Conducting a community assessment can help you to engage community members, highlight problems as well as their potential solutions, challenge assumptions, and offer credibility to important stakeholders. Conducting a baseline assessment is also one of the first steps to applying to join the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities. Examples of age-friendly assessments from New York City, Washington D.C., and Portland, Oregon are available online.

age-friendly_bannerI spoke with Steve Ridini, vice president of the Community Health Division at Health Resources in Action (HRiA), to provide some tips on how to assess the age-friendliness of your community. Ridini has helped conduct many community assessments in Massachusetts and across the country. While the process can seem daunting, you don’t have to do it alone. Here is an overview of the basic steps and some resources to help get you started.

  1. Assemble a team.
  • Identify the diverse stakeholders you need to bring together to conduct a successful assessment.
  • Consider partnering “unusual suspects” –organizations who may bring a different skill set, experience, or other resources in order to share in the work and its rewards.
  • Establish consensus on the purpose of conducting the assessment, each partner’s roles and investment (e.g. time, money, etc.), and what you will do with the outcomes.
  1. Formulate your research questions.
  • Define what age-friendliness means in your community. You may wish to refer to existing models such as the WHO framework or the Village Model.
  • Decide on the research questions that will drive your assessment. For instance, if you are using the WHO framework, you might ask, “To what extent does our community fit the WHO’s checklist of essential features of age-friendly cities?” The research questions may be more general or specific, or more focused on some areas than others (e.g. health, housing).
  • Determine what indicators you will need to answer those research questions. There are existing tools that offer standardized measures for different indicators, such as THRIVE, which examines environmental features such as open spaces and social networks, and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing tool, which examines fair housing-related factors such as transit access and poverty rates.
  1. Identify existing data.
  • First, look for existing health-related information on your community. There’s a lot out already out there!
  • Start with the MA Healthy Aging Data Report Community Profile for your city or town, which includes Census, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) data.
  • MassCHIP provides Massachusetts Community Health Information Profiles.
  • Use the Community Health Needs Assessment platform to customize reporting for different indicators.
  • The CDC Community Health Improvement Navigator provides vetted tools and resources for collaborative community health improvement work, including data sources
    look for assessments conducted by organizations in your community.
  •  This table from the Embracing Equity in Community Health Improvement report by HRiA offers a helpful list of organizations, such as public health departments and Area Agencies on Aging, that conduct community health improvement efforts and may have existing information to share.
  1. If necessary, collect new data.
  • Once you’ve reviewed existing data, compare them to your original research questions and desired indicators, which you may also wish to refine.
  • Determine what gaps you need to fill, if any, by collecting new data. Pay particular attention to whether the voices of older adults are represented in your data.
  • If you need to collect new data to complete your community assessment, prioritize those data that are most central to your assessment and are obtainable given your team’s time and resources.
  • This CDC Community Health Assessment and Group Evaluation (CHANGE) Action Guide offers an overview of the different data collection methods you might consider.
  1. Analyze, summarize, and publicize your findings.
  • Examine your community’s assets and needs. Discuss with your team what these findings mean and what implications they may have for a community action plan.
  • Write a report of your findings so that you have a single document to reference and share. Consider if/when your team might update this report in the future.
  • Share your findings. Possible options might include circulating it with people you have interviewed during the assessment, presenting the results at a town hall meeting, or disseminating it through a community newsletter. Increasing community awareness about its current status can help to galvanize support as you turn your findings into action.

In addition to these basic steps to conducting a community assessment, Ridini also recommends thinking about how to engage community providers and members in the process and to consider how the assessment will relate to planning and implementation.

Ridini advised, “Assess people’s willingness and capacity to be in it in the short-term or long haul. I see the phases as interconnected, but people can come in and out based on their availability and commitment. But in the end it’s about the team, which is why we start with the team. It’s like dropping a pebble in the pond, where you have concentric circles, building on what kind of people and skills you need to move forward.”

For more guidance on how to form a leadership team to conduct an assessment, build an evidence-based plan, implement and evaluate the plan, and then plan for sustainability and communication, take a look at the HRiA’s Embracing Equity in Community Health Improvement report.