Feeding the soul and the mind: How KDL serves lifelong learners in the aging population

Often, the concept of literacy, reading skills and comprehension are focused largely on the youth. While an important, vital tool for future success, there is another population who is deeply impacted by reading as well. Sometimes overlooked or underserved, the aging population’s relationship with literacy is also absolutely vital to mental and physical health of the elderly. 

Shelley Roossien, Kent District Library (KDL) accessibility and inclusion specialist, says “a lot of our focus with literacy, of course, is getting into the schools, and getting those young kids learning to love to read, but we do recognize the importance of making sure adults and the elderly continue to foster that love of reading.”

Roossien says the majority of outreach the Library typically does for these patrons has been put on hold for safety reasons. “A lot of what we have done with the aging population revolved heavily on providing services to senior facilities, like nursing homes and assisted living communities,” she says. “However, because of COVID, our librarians have not had a lot of opportunity to continue that outreach. We are slowly starting to make those connections again as more places open up.”

Shelley Roossien

However, one of the Library system’s largest accessibility-focused services is still in effect, which is the Talking Book & Braille Center (TBBC). Roossien has managed the TBBC for the past 17 years. Nationwide, the TBBC program started in 1931 and KDL has been a participating library since 1973. “This is a program that provides books and magazines in audio and Braille formats through the mail to people who cannot read standard print because of a visual or physical disability. While the program is open to all ages, most of our customers are elderly, as vision loss and decreased mobility tend to be more prevalent in that population.”

This nationwide program sends materials right to participants’ doors within KDL’s service area, expanding beyond  Kent county to include Ionia and Montcalm counties. Participants can return materials back with no postage charges. “It’s very convenient,” Roossien says. “I have plenty of patrons that have told me over the years that they’ve always been avid readers. When you’re a huge reader and lose your sight, it’s devastating — it’s just one more thing that got taken away. So, for people to still be able to still enjoy reading in an alternative way really helps. This program helps them to be still engaged in literacy.”

The collection includes over 100,000 books, offering participants a wide range of materials. To enroll in the TBBC system, people fill out an application. “Once [people are] enrolled, they can make requests. They get a catalog that has the new material sent to them every couple of months,” Roossien says. If patrons are in need of additional information or assistance, the Library provides several options. “[Individuals] can call the Library and any of our patron services staff can assist them, they can email us or place their own holds,” she says. “There’s even a download service attached to this too, so if people are pretty tech-savvy and want to download their own audiobooks to their phone, iPad or computer, there is a way for them to do that as well.”

Roossien says the community’s response to the TBBC is overwhelmingly positive. “I’m constantly hearing ‘thank you so much for my books, this is a lifesaver, I don’t know what I would do without this program.’ It’s very positive and people really enjoy it.”

Locally, KDL also offers a large-print collection, which Roossien says is a “good bridge for people that are maybe starting to lose their vision but aren’t quite ready to give up that print aspect.” 

Curbside pickup is also a popular service utilized by the aging population, pre-pandemic, during COVID-19 and even now. “If someone has mobility issues and finds it difficult to get into our buildings, they can place their holds and we’ll bring their materials right out to them. That’s not a service that was just because of COVID. We realize the importance of keeping that service around, so it’s not something that’s going to go away at all.”

Part of Roosien’s job entails physical accessibility as well, something important for the wide range and abilities of patrons the Library serves. “When new library locations are being built, I’m making sure they are completely accessible, wheelchair friendly, open spaces, and that the counters are at appropriate heights. Nothing is put on too tall of a shelf. We don’t want people to not get something because they couldn’t reach it. There’s a lot of little things like that most people don’t think of until it affects you. For someone who’s in a wheelchair or has some severe arthritis, it can be difficult to reach over their head for a book. A lot of people don’t want to ask for help, so we are trying to make it so they don’t have to by making everything as accessible as possible.”

Although Penni Zurgable, MLIS, branch librarian at Amy Van Andel Library’s monthly trips to nearby retirement communities are less than they used to be pre-pandemic, she says checking in with those patrons scattered throughout the area is important to the library. Before the pandemic, KDL would frequently visit senior living centers, bringing books via a pop-up library, signing people up for library cards, crafts or activities, and showing them how to use their own smart devices for e-books. 

Zurgable has visited Sunrise Senior Living Center, Emerald Meadows, Sentinel Pointe, Heather Hills and Gaylord House during her time with the Library. “I’d talk to the residents and get to know them, and talk about what they liked to read. I’d take requests from them to bring next month and, knowing their tastes, I would grab things I thought they’d be interested in and bring them out so they have a new variety every month,” says Zurgable. For her, these visits provided opportunities for interaction and education. “We’d spread the books out on a table, and the residents would talk to me about books, if they liked the one they read last month. Many times, I’d do that with a partner and we’d also provide some tech tutoring on resident’s cell phones or tablets. We’d help them download the readers used for our e-books, Overdrive, Libby and Hoopla,” she says. “I hope we can start all of these visits again soon, but it is a complicated time.”

“I went to Sunrise Senior Living, which is a memory care facility near the Cascade library. I went to the area where people are furthest along in their dementia and worked with them over the past few years. That’s gut-wrenching because I haven’t seen them since COVID. They touched my heart on a monthly basis,” she says. 

“We don’t want people in retirement homes to feel forgotten. The faces that light up when I get there are so wonderful. The relationships that you forge with individual residents are priceless. To have a room full of seniors' faces light up when you walk into the room is very good for your soul. Hopefully, it was good for theirs too.”

Since many elders living in these retirement communities became both the most vulnerable and most isolated of population groups during the pandemic, KDL staff found a new way to reach out to those residents. 

“During the COVID crisis, KDL helped connect our patrons who wrote cards and letters to seniors with some facility residents,” Zurgable says. KDL also brought materials via the Bookmobile. The Library is working with partnering centers to gauge which locations are willing to hit the ‘restart’ button on these partnerships and bring KDL pop-up libraries, book clubs, and more back to their centers safely. 

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 

Photos courtesy Kristina Bird, Bird + Bird Studio

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
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