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3 Reasons Why Cities Should Focus on Seniors, Not Whippersnappers

Last week, I served on a panel at the National League of Cities Congress in Denver, Colorado. Fellow panelists included Harvard’s John O’Leary, The Performance Institute’s Alan Shark, Muni Gov 2.0 co-founder Pam Broviak and Social Media for Responders founder Mark Basnight. Each of us offered our insights about the state of social media in local government followed by opportunities for the 100 or so members of the audience to offer feedback and thoughts.

As these local government officials – most of them city council members from across the country – approached the microphone, it seemed like they had a prevailing question on their minds:

How do we better educate and engage senior citizens with social media?

This question runs counter to the dominant trend, which largely focuses on engaging the next generation of citizens – teens and twenty-somethings. In fact, just before attending the event, I was impressed with a recent post on GovLoop by Nick Doctor entitled, “The Case for Youth Engagement.”

But I think it’s an important and largely unexplored question. So I’d like to get the conversation going with 3 reasons why seniors are an important, untapped portion of what Beth Noveck has called “citizen surplus.”

1. Senior Citizens Have the Time to Help: I think of my grandmother in a care facility in Texas who has relatively limited activities available to her every day. I don’t know if she’s looking to become savvy with social media, but I’ll bet she’d be open to learning a new skill that can create a bit more variety in her weekly routine. And once she’s learned how to use it, are there volunteer or stipend-based activities that a local government could coordinate with care facilities to leverage her latent energy?

2. Senior Citizens Are Less Mobile: My grandmother doesn’t drive anymore. In fact, believe it or not, she never drove. So how did she get downtown to city hall to complete important transactions? My grandfather drove her there, and now that role has fallen to my aunt and uncle. But what if she could learn how to access the Internet and complete basic activities online? That would be immensely helpful and allow her to retain a sense of independence.

3. Senior Citizens are Open to Learning: Community centers and libraries are increasingly offering courses for senior citizens to learn how to use Facebook and Skype and mobile phones so that they can stay connected with their children and grandchildren. So why aren’t cities taking the lead to ensure that seniors receive this education and empower them to do more using new technology. By the way, check out this tutorial.

I have more ideas, but I’d like to hear from you:

How is your municipality educating senior citizens about social media and mobile technology?

– How is your municipality empowering seniors to use social media and mobile tech as transaction and interaction vehicles?

– How is your city engaging seniors – inviting them to blog or interviewing them via podcast or video – to share their knowledge or insights?

I can’t wait to see what’s happening in your town…

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Andrew Krzmarzick

A fourth reason:

4 – The Seniors Will Soon be a HUGE Population in the US: As the Boomers retire and age over the next 5-10 years, many of them will be Internet savvy AND surveys from AARP, Merrill Lynch and others have indicated that Boomers will reinvent retirement, engaging in more volunteerism than any previous generation. We ought to get good at tapping senior power now so we can really leverage a much larger age cohort in the not-too-distant-future.

Stephen Peteritas

I think number 1 is a big point. Just think how many more things the city would be aware of if they had seniors eyes all over the place. I know when I owned a home I loved having older neighbors who were always watching the neighborhood. Yes it was a little overbearing sometimes but nothing bad ever happened in that neighborhood cause they were on it. Think about applying that to local gov and it’s pretty cool.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Seriously – think about cities equipping seniors with a phones and having them go for regular walks through key neighborhoods where they live, pointing out issues using an app like SeeClickFix.

Joe Flood

It may seem odd but seniors don’t actually like being called seniors. I used to work at AARP and we convoluted ourselves in all sorts of ways not to use that term. People consider themselves individuals first and part of an age cohort second. It’s funny – “the old guy” is always someone else, no matter your age.

The iPhone is a perfect tool for older Americans because it’s easier to use than a computer. Like you said, older folks have time, can learn new things and want to help their communities. Being engaged and active also helps older people stay healthy. SeeClickFix or some sort of 311 service would be perfect for them. Perhaps too they could be quasi-official “neighborhood ambassadors” designed to keep an eye on things like Stephen commented on.