ARCHIVED: Section II: Highlights of Focus Group Discussions: Age-Friendly Rural and Remote Communities: A Guide – Social participation


5. Social Participation

Social networks, social participation and feelings of belonging are important to healthy living, disease prevention and the prevention of isolation among seniors. Older people who remain active in society and socially connected are happier, physically and mentally healthier, and better able to cope with life’s ups and downs.12

The focus group discussions shed some light on the social activities of seniors living in rural and remote communities across Canada. The three most frequently mentioned social activities in such communities include:

  • physical recreation or sports-related activities, including spectator sports
  • church or school-related events or programs
  • events that include food, including potlatches, community dinners and even funerals

"The other social service things are I guess you either have to be here for awhile or get involved with the right group and then do social evenings and in people's homes and that kind of thing. You have to make the first step and that's maybe difficult for a lot of seniors. If you've lived here all your life you've formed a good relationship, but if you come as an adult it is a little bit more difficult."

"I have to say that I moved here when we retired and it was very hard to break into any friendly circles until I went out and got involved."

An important and common factor in these frequently occurring community activities is that they bring together generations of people. Older persons in the focus groups frequently talked about the importance and desirability of mixing with other adults and children of all ages. One innovative program mentioned was a "seniors, moms and tots" swimming program. Others mentioned that they (older people) also regularly curl with younger people in the community, and many said they meet up with other family members and other community members at the hockey arena or the school gymnasium to cheer on community sports teams. Some older focus group participants, but not all, said they prefer not to participate in "seniors" events or to restrict themselves to only friendships with people their own age.

Food acts as a huge connector between members of rural and remote communities, and this became very apparent early in each focus group. Similarly, funerals and wakes, and other events that bring people together at times of death surfaced frequently in the discussions. While participants identified community and other organized events as important, other, less organized social contact is also clearly important to many. This may include, for example, a service provider taking time to stop for a cup of tea or coffee while attending to his or her “client.”

Walking is also a favourite participatory pastime of older persons (see also the discussion about outdoor spaces and buildings). In addition, courses—especially computer courses—are popular amongst older residents in some rural or remote communities, as are card clubs, bingo and darts.

Some participants raised the issue that, at least in some communities, older people who are newcomers to a community (e.g., people who move to a rural community in retirement) can face a different social reality than those who have lived there most of their lives.

Some of the older adult focus group participants raised concerns that many seniors do not take advantage of the programs available to them. In some cases, this has led to recreational facilities closing down. Others noted that funding problems have left facilities without management and program staff. The lack of transportation arises, yet again, as a key barrier to older persons’ participation in social events. Other common barriers identified include a lack of information about planned events (information not getting out to people in a timely or efficient manner), and problems of affordability and accessibility that prevent some seniors from being able to participate in social activities and programs.

Summary of Key Findings

Focus group participants offered a number of suggestions for communities to consider in social planning and programming for seniors:

Age-friendly features include . . .

  • Opportunities for physical recreation or sports, including spectator sports
  • Activities for seniors offered in places of worship or schools
  • Food-related activities—including coffee/tea get-togethers
  • Cultural events—including those that feature music and theatre
  • Non-physical recreation (indoor activities) such as bingo, cards, darts, etc.
  • Courses on crafts or hobbies
  • Locating all activities in areas that are convenient and accessible (including by public transportation) to seniors
  • Providing activities that are affordable to everyone
  • Offering intergenerational and family (multigenerational) oriented activities

Barriers include . . .

  • Transportation difficulties and offering too many activities that require travel
  • Low attendance leading to cancellation of activities
  • Under-utilization of recreation facilities
  • A lack of facilities or program staff
  • Social barriers (real and/or perceived) for older newcomers

Suggestions from participants for improving age-friendliness . . .

  • Find ways to encourage a variety of people to come out to social events and activities—including those on fixed incomes, those who live alone and those less mobile—in order get broad representation of the community.
  • Cover the costs of courses for seniors.
  • Need additional resources in rural communities.
  • Establish adult day programs for those with dementia to develop support systems and improve their health.
  • Offer day programs for older persons in community health centres/recreational facilities to provide health and well-being services (e.g., health programs, disease prevention, coping skills) and other activities. Such programs would not only provide social opportunities for seniors, they would also provide families with respite.
  • Organize home visits by neighbours and other members of the community.

6. Communication and Information

There was general agreement that keeping older adults informed—not only about community events, but about broader community information—allows seniors to be better connected to their community and supports them in their daily activities.

Information provided by focus group participants suggests that the most widely used methods of communication in rural and remote communities continue to be more traditional methods—word of mouth, telephone, bulletin boards, newspapers and radio—as well as through community events. Based on participant comments, the most effective communications tool by far is the poster or flyer posted on bulletin boards in key locations, most notably the post office or grocery store. Word of mouth—in person or by telephone, though family and friends or through clubs, associations, community centres and places of worship—is also seen as an important way to get information out.

“The gossip mill is still the fastest way to get anything around.”

“In a lot of rural communities there’s no broadband, so no high speed. I go home and I go crazy because if I download a picture it takes 28 years so that I find is a lot for old people who do have computers and I know a lot of them don’t have access to the internet.”

Newsletters or directory-type publications appear to be another important source of information for older adults, with many older adult participants and service providers identifying a calendar of events and a listing of programs and services (municipal, community/recreation centres, etc.) as a useful publication. It was seen to be most useful when it includes key contacts with their phone numbers. Unfortunately, in many communities, such publications are no longer being developed and disseminated.

Many in the focus groups expressed fear that they will be left behind as more and more information and documentation is found only on the internet or can be accessed only through complex automated services.

Specifically, older adult participants had many complaints about automated telephone systems. Indeed, problems related to automated or complex systems, especially telephone systems, ranked highest on the list of barriers to effective communication and information exchange. In particular, there appears to be much frustration about trying to access vitally important information from government sources.

Clearly, older adults in the focus groups preferred to have someone to talk to. Participants expressed an interest in attending information sessions led by experts, in taking part in coffee clubs or tea groups, and even joining literacy programs as a means of communicating and obtaining information. They also noted interest in home visits by seniors and other groups to people’s homes, and portable library services. Face-to-face contact is seen as a particularly useful means of information dissemination, in particular for those who may be socially isolated and for those with lower literacy levels.

Overall, older adults were concerned that they were not well informed and were often unable to obtain relevant information on events in the community, key contacts or programs available to them-in particular, from government sources.

“Now I'm sending e-mails and it's very nice."

“I just wanted to reiterate that the government seems to really be relying more and more on technology and those phone services and the internet. A lot of times they’ll just give www.addresses—go look over there. And, for most seniors, that’s just not accessible.”

“Automated phone systems—it’s the most extremely aggravating experience.”

While seniors are embracing new technologies, these technologies often cause concern and frustration. Comments from participants suggest that posting information on the internet is not most effective way to reach a large proportion of the senior population. Not all seniors have access to computers; nor do all have the skills to use them as information and communication tools. Besides, many rural and remote communities do not have high-speed internet services; this can be frustrating, especially for older persons who are just becoming acquainted with the technology. Assumptions that most, if not all, people even have access to the internet is unrealistic in rural and remote communities.

Despite many comments about how older people feared new technologies, those older participants who had taken a computer course generally expressed great satisfaction with the courses and with their improving proficiency. Some noted that such courses provide yet another opportunity for young and old to interact, as it is often high school students who provide the computer training to seniors.

Summary of Key Findings

Focus group participants offer the following observations and suggestions regarding keeping seniors connected in their communities:

Age-friendly features include . . .

  • Posting information about events on bulletin boards, in areas frequented by seniors
  • Communication by telephone or word of mouth, as well as through newspapers and church bulletins
  • Publicizing events and information important to seniors in local newspapers and through cable or community access channels
  • Providing seniors with access to computers, including access to training on how to use computers and the internet
  • Creation and maintenance of a seniors and/or volunteer resource centre
  • Information on events in the community disseminated through the radio
  • Making information on websites easy for seniors to find
  • Creating a community services directory for older persons that contains information and key contacts for programs of potential interest to seniors

Barriers include . . .

  • Lack of awareness of existing programs and services
  • Use of automated and/or complex systems (such as government information phone systems)
  • Government information that is difficult to find and access
  • Vision and/or reading related difficulties faced by some seniors
  • Outdated or lack of information about events
  • Poor or lack of access to cable, radio or broadband services
  • Telephone solicitation of seniors

Suggestions from participants for improving age-friendliness . . .

  • Set up a community centre-based phone committee that makes a monthly call to senior members (who want it) to remind them of all the activities happening at the centre.
  • Celebrate the lives of seniors in local newspapers.
  • Find ways to include socially isolated seniors in the exchange of information.


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