Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Having a reliable, evidence-based planning process can significantly impact how state governments address the immediate needs of their aging residents while planning for the future.
The demographics of the U.S. are changing, marked by a rapid increase in the number of older adults. Americans 65 years and older, one of the fastest-growing groups in the nation, are expected to reach 80.8 million in 2040. This shift has far-reaching implications for state government leaders. Older adults will soon be the largest demographic in the nation, and government leaders will have to understand their needs and preferences and learn how to address those issues effectively.
Although state units on aging are responsible for developing statewide plans to address aging issues and providing services for older adults and their families, most states lack quality data to inform their state plans. Traditional methods of gathering data, such as in-person listening sessions, older adult advisory councils and public hearings aren't truly representative. Responses tend to come from the same small group of people who are already plugged into local aging services. Yet, developing questions and executing a statewide representative survey to reach residents can be a daunting effort.
Prioritizing engagement and investing in research and surveys that capture the diverse needs and preferences of residents in communities is critical. In Virginia, the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, or DARS, engaged Polco, an online polling platform provider, to do a Community Assessment Survey for Older Adults. Created by survey experts and analyzed by data scientists, CASOA reveals older adults' most pressing concerns through civic engagement and data analytics, thus allowing DARS to dive into the data and identify specific focus areas across regions.
The DARS team members spread the word about the survey by working with Virginia's 25 area agencies on aging, or AAAs, and other aging services organizations, local governments and trusted stakeholders. DARS developed a toolkit for the organizations that contained talking points and FAQs to address resident questions, social media graphics and materials as well as template articles for inclusion in paper or email newsletters.
In the end, nearly 9,000 older adults in the commonwealth participated in the CASOA, and the respondents were a much more diverse sample of older Virginians than the listening sessions of the past.
Some of the insights were encouraging, such as older adults generally having optimistic, positive views of their lives and communities, but DARS also gained new, unexpected insights. Housing, mental health and physical health were the biggest concerns for older adults in Virginia, with at least 45% of older adult residents reporting these areas as a major or moderate problem.
The data also revealed, unfortunately, that many older Virginians are unaware of their local AAA or the services available to them. Although DARS has made efforts to inform older residents about their options, staff now know they have both an opportunity and an obligation to make sure the available services and support are being conveyed to the public in a meaningful way.
These insights were incredibly valuable in the creation of the State Plan for Aging Services, and DARS simultaneously prepared a report for the Virginia General Assembly and presented the results to all Virginia’s AAAs, showing them how to navigate and explore the reports and data. Many AAAs are small and rural and would not have the resources to do a survey like this on their own. Now each individual region has access to up-to-date data directly from their communities.
DARS staff showed AAAs how to use their data for preparing their Older Americans Act-required area plans, which detail how aging services will be delivered in their communities. They also demonstrated how the data can help with seeking additional funding and applying for grants, supporting communications and social media outreach, engaging policymakers, and identifying and collaborating with other partner organizations focused on social determinants of health and health care.
Through analysis of the CASOA data, DARS validated the notion that the majority of Virginia residents plan on staying in their homes as they age. The agency also learned that residents aged 75 and older were concerned they would be unable to stay in their homes, especially without home modifications. Knowing this, DARS expanded the CASOA survey to ask older Virginians about their specific home modification challenges. From that effort, it became clear that home repairs and home maintenance were the biggest problems. Yet services like door or window repairs, minor plumbing or electrical repairs, home weatherization and pest control, tend to be forgotten when it comes time to fund programs.
The data has also helped DARS make the case for older adult needs in its grant applications. Field experience has shown that the need for home maintenance and home modifications is expansive, and these types of services are often underfunded through the traditional Older Americans Act aging network. With the data to back up its case, DARS collaborated with the Appalachian Agency for Senior Citizens, Bay Aging and the Southern Area Agency on Aging to apply for, and win, a U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant to help older adults in rural areas of Virginia get the home repairs and modifications they need to age in place. DARS officials believe the insights gleaned from CASOA data made a difference in the success of the grant proposals.
Having a reliable, evidence-based planning process can significantly impact how state governments address immediate needs while planning for the future. In Virginia, it's allowed DARS to create a State Plan for Aging Services that truly addresses the identified needs and preferences of older adult residents and help support their desire to age in place. Now more than ever, government decision-making must be grounded in data analytics, and this venture has given DARS and Virginia's aging network a solid foundation to build on. The future looks bright as the agency works to make the commonwealth a great place for all Virginians to grow old.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Sept. 27 to correct the name of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.
Charlotte Arbogast, senior policy analyst and regulatory coordinator at the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS)