Social Participation for All Ages: Getting the Conversation Started

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With the population of older residents burgeoning in most places around the globe, the divide between young and old seems to be increasing, too. As a result, people on both ends of the age spectrum are left feeling displaced, their needs unmet. In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched an ambitious worldwide effort to address that growing problem worldwide.

It identified eight specific areas communities can focus on to become more age-friendly:

This served as a starting point for many local efforts worldwide, with ongoing programs and activities recorded at a dedicated website, Age Friendly World.

In addition to tangible concerns about transportation and housing, the older people WHO consulted all around the world said they recognized that social stimulation is essential to their good health and well-being throughout life. But many also said they experienced barriers to participating in leisure, social, cultural, and spiritual activities in their own communities.

Looking at the Social Situation

Yarmouth, Massachusetts was one of the first locales in the U.S. to join WHO’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, and to focus on improving social participation possibilities for residents of all ages. It is one of the oldest towns on Cape Cod, with a population approaching 24,000; more than one-third of the year-round residents there are age 65 or older.

“About 32{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} of the seniors in the town of Yarmouth are at or below the economic security level. That means they’re living on $20,000 or less,” says Kathi Bailey, director of senior services in Yarmouth. “So this picture of Cape Cod where everybody is affluent and enjoying life in its abundance is true for many. But it’s not true for all.” She underscores that a truly age-friendly community must strive to make sure that needed services and resources are available to all.

She and the others on Yarmouth’s nascent Age-Friendly Network hoped to gather ideas and reach some solutions the old-fashioned way: by talking it out. But the disconnect between the perception of bliss and reality of struggling made it difficult to broach the subject of “social participation,” much less suggest ready solutions to remedy those long excluded.

Searching for a structure, they used the World Café Toolkit to facilitate a focus group to complete the first step in creating an Age-Friendly Community findings report.

A mixed group of people were invited to participate in an initial meeting — including Chamber of Commerce business members, municipal departments, nonprofit organizations, regional agency heads, and residents of all ages. They then held a World Café-style discussion later described as “a fast paced three hour question brainstorming session.”

The group’s discussion was limited to three questions:

  1. What do you love about Yarmouth that you want to be sure to preserve?
  2. What one improvement would you like to see that would benefit —
    • a) younger people?
    • b) older people?
  3. What concrete opportunities could you imagine for working together to make sure that Yarmouth is a community that honors and nurtures everyone who lives here?

The responses are still being tallied and summarized, but Bailey has already been pleasantly surprised by the community leaders’ responsiveness to ideas for improvement. “The leaders in Yarmouth have been amazing,” she says. “At a local level, they have shown something that isn’t often found in small communities: the ability to listen carefully, think about our demographics, and then try something that nobody else is doing right now.”

In addition, to gather information from those not at that meeting, about 500 Yarmouth residents from age 15 to age 115 participated in a survey about living there; the results are summarized in a report: “Living Well in North Yarmouth — An Age-Friendly Community.”

The Innerworkings of a World Café

Those who formulated the World Café design describe it as “an easy-to-use concept for creating a living network of collaborative dialogue around questions that matter in service to real work.” Simply put, it’s a structured way to harness the wisdom and creativity that can be gained from large and small groups of people having conversations.

While the process can be used in many different contexts, it has proven to be particularly useful in a discussion of needed age-friendly changes, particularly the softer concerns of social inclusion and participation and other issues that may have become politically fraught in a community.

The conversations are designed to follow a set format. First a maximum of five people are seated around small café-style tables or in small clusters and asked to focus their attention and talk on the specific questions posed. After a certain time — at least 20 minutes — all but one person are asked to relocate to other tables in the room. The person who remains welcomes new people to that table; those who rove share the thoughts gleaned with the others in their new group as that group ponders the same question. The process is repeated at least three times, then the group as a whole convenes in a town meeting

There are also a number of basic guidelines for World Café conversations:

  • Set the context. Be clear about the purpose of the meeting and what you hope to achieve.
  • Create a hospitable space. Making a safe and inviting atmosphere helps people feel more comfortable and creative — and more willing to express themselves.
  • Explore questions that matter. Pose questions that are relevant to real-life concerns.
  • Encourage everyone’s contribution. This means not only encouraging those present to add their ideas, but realizing that some people prefer to participate by listening.
  • Connect diverse perspectives. Participants are encouraged to move among different tables, meet new people, exchange perspectives.
  • Listen for patterns and insights. World Café organizers emphasize that listening is “perhaps the most important factor determining the success of a café.” And listening for themes repeated among those attending can help uncover a connection to a larger whole that was there all along.
  • Share discoveries. In the last phase of the café, the patterns and questions discussed in the smaller groups are shared with the whole, followed by a few minutes of silent reflection on those finds.

For Help and More Information

For more information on designing and holding a World Café, see the book by the founders, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter. 

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