COMM-ORG Papers Volume 17, 2011

Organizing Seniors for Action: a Practical Guide

Margot Smith


Outreach Issues
The Older Internet User
Other Ways of Communication
Events with Elder Participation
About the Author


When engaging seniors in community, political, social, artistic or faith-based activities, it is important to work together in ways that accommodate their needs.  Large percentages are voters.  They are often religious, serve as caregivers, work as artists, go to concerts, tour historic sites, and are activists.  Elders are storehouses of knowledge--they know how to work the system and know how things became the way they are. 

However, communicating with older people requires special effort.  Some use the internet and many do not, so we must use several ways of connecting with them.

When planning events with seniors, we must make sure they are interesting, and for those concerned with politics, involve social action.  There are many things that seniors can do.  They can make phone calls, register voters, write legislators, attend demonstrations, circulate petitions, meet and collaborate with other groups, organize an action, table at public events, go to government sessions, visit public officials, organize a teach in, and even commit civil disobedience.  What many seniors cannot do is phone bank (because of hearing problems,) attend night time meetings, provide transportation, go long distances and attend costly affairs.

Outreach Issues

Many of us get our information from the internet--email, web sites, social networking, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and so on.  However, there are generational differences in internet use.  Most internet users are between 18 and 35 years. However, elders over age 75 are increasing in their use of the internet, according to the Pew study, Generational Differences in Online Activities.  In a 2008 study, 56% of those aged 64-72 and only 31% of those aged 73 and older used the internet.  In 2009, 45% of 70-75 year olds were online.  Curiously, according to Perez, email is for old people.  In 2011, 74% of internet users age 64 and older send and receive email.  Meanwhile, email usage among teens is dropping, possibly because of increased social networking. In 2004, 89% of teens said they used email. Now that number is 73%.   Although these studies show that young people dominate the online population, it is interesting to note that as many as 20% of younger populations were not online, 

Why don't more older folks use the internet?  We find that many may have never used computers during their working years.  Some now in their 60s to 70s may have used computers, but the computers were not those currently available and they did not have the uses that are common now.   People with limited technical experience may be fearful of the mechanics of it.  Despite some success in training older people for computer use, some resist, others are unable, and worse, they may lose abilities with advancing age.  With increasing age, elders may have vision, hearing and mobility losses. 

It is a well-hidden secret in the United States that we have a huge illiteracy problem--22%--among them older folks.  Low income Americans who grew up in rural areas or inner cities, African Americans who grew up under Jim Crow, people with undiagnosed dyslexia, immigrants from developing countries, and school drop-outs may be illiterate or have very poor reading skills.  Many disguise their illiteracy saying "I left my glasses at home" or "I need help with this".

The current reality is that many older people (and some younger ones) are not on the Internet and never will be.  Although baby boomers (ages 44-63) will probably continue to be computer users as they age, the truth is that we must reach out in multiple ways if we are to encourage seniors and others without the internet to participate in the wider community.

The Older Internet User

What does the older generation do online? Studies found that elders use the internet less for socializing and entertainment and more for research, email, and shopping. What is surprising is that users aged 73 and up use the internet just as frequently for doing health searches as do younger elders.  In fact, researching health information is the third most popular online activity for seniors, after email and general online search.

Americans with a disability are less likely to use the Internet than those without.  While individuals with disability are likely to be of lower income, lower education, and higher age, within any demographic grouping those with disabilities are less likely be web users.  Americans living with a disability are also likely to be older: 58% are age 50 or older, compared with 36% of adults who report no disabilities who are that age. (Pew)

Elders who wish to use the internet have many options.  In some cities, senior centers and public libraries have computers and computer training programs, and seniors find email and social networking an important way to keep up with family.  In Berkeley a few years ago, we organized computer training for elders living in a low income senior residence.  Computers were donated by local businesses, and a training program was held at the residence.  The project was funded by a grant from the Koret Foundation.   However, even with these opportunities, in my experience with Gray Panthers members in the San Francisco Bay Area, only about 33% have email and very few use social networking.

Communicating well with elders on the Internet is important.  Be sure to use 12 point font or larger.  Emails about meetings and issues should be sent to them well ahead of time with reminders near the day of the event.  Many elders have older computers, so the software should be compatible--it is often better to imbed the message in the email rather than send an attachment or a link.  The subject line should state the subject and date, and the messages should be brief--one or two paragraphs, and include the who, what, where, when and why.  The where and when should be near the top, and include cost, public transportation, and wheelchair accessibility. 

Organizations can set up a Listserv where anyone's contribution is automatically sent to everyone, or where a moderator screens all contributions.  A listserv consists of a set of email addresses in which the sender can send one email to a whole group of people.  Offered by Google and Yahoo among others, listserv members must sign up with a group to be included.  If the organization's membership consists of experienced computer users, a listserv can function as a good information resource.  One can receive listserv emails individually, or grouped into one email.  Problems are that listservs can fall victim to lengthy dialogues or polemics and may generate excessive emails.  For the unsophisticated elder email user, I've found that using a group list of emails and sending blind copies works better for us as a means of disseminating email information.  In the Gray Panthers, we only send out action notices to our members, not articles or opinions.

Events open to newcomers and the public can be listed with on-line calendars, such as Craigslist,, and with on-line newspapers.  Information about events through websites and Facebook is also possible.  The development of Facebook pages for organizations makes it easy for people to access information for those accustomed to using it.  At this time, the use of social networking by elders is increasing rapidly but it is not yet their primary means of communication.  Blogging is less popular with the onset of social networking.(Pew)  When using on-line listings, be sure to include key words that can be found with a search engine such as Google.  It is good to check with similar listed events and see the key words they use to make it more possible to find the event when searched for.

Other Ways of Communication

How do we get information to non-internet users and improve their participation in community organizations and events?  We find we must rely on techniques from past times, such as newspapers, phoning, newsletters and postcards (snail mail), tabling, visiting places where seniors congregate, flyers, posters and letters, and being visible in the community.

When reaching out to low literacy populations, one must rely on radio, television, tabling at places where people congregate, hanging out, home visits, phoning, and verbal communication.  Non-English speakers need material in their languages. 

When using any written communication with elders, the print font should be 12 point or larger. Since many elders did not have the benefit of higher education, it is wise to check the reading level of the message--Microsoft Word can give you readability statistics, which usually should be at 8 to 10th grade level, since many older people born during the depression years did not finish high school. (Go to tools->options->spelling and grammar->readability statistics)

•     Newspapers:  Although newspapers are generally declining in circulation because of the internet onslaught, we find that many seniors continue with their subscriptions and rely on them for news.  It is important to list community events in their calendars and send them press releases, and follow their guidelines for submitting Information.   Communities often have free weeklies that list events.  One should send newspapers information at least three weeks in advance.

•     Radio and Television:  Some local stations list community events, and will accept submissions from local organizations.  Again, follow their guidelines.  In general, media have two departments receiving local information--News and Calendars.  In the Gray Panthers, we list our public meetings on local calendars, sending them an email about the event three weeks ahead of time.  In the event of a special occasion, like a well-known speaker or action, the News department is sent a news release.  The media releases follow a specific format, which are required.  Most importantly, they must be brief, complete, and list a local contact person.  Because of our long-time contact with the media, we also may be called on to serve on panels and for radio show input. 

In our community, we must list an event as wheelchair accessible or it will not be listed in some publications.  Information about public meetings and events can be emailed to most news and media sources.  Email media sources for your city or area can be obtained from, go to USA==>State==>City. 

•     Posters and Flyers: Distributing flyers at meetings and displaying posters on kiosks, on the streets and in gathering places can help get the word out on events and actions.  Posters and flyers should have print large enough to read at a 30 inch distance from a bulletin board or wall.  Many copies of flyers and 8 1/2 x11 posters can be copied inexpensively in color or black and white.  When sending out flyers and posters as .pdf  or .jpg files, I make sure the headline print on the final copy is  80 point font or better, and the copy is 14 or better.

•     Newsletters: Organizations often have newsletters and mail their members information about issues, meetings and events.  These are especially important now that newspapers and other media are not covering many local events that we care about.  We send information to be included in other organization newsletters, especially when we have similar missions or are members of a coalition.

•     Postcards:  When the news is hot and immediate action is needed, postcards are a good way to get information out to all the membership.  In our area, if we take the postcard mailing to the central postal distribution center, people receive the card the next day.  We use a hot green color on the post card, which gets attention.  The postcard can be placed on one's refrigerator and serves as an active reminder.  Again, the font should be 12 point or better.

•     Phone Tree: Some organizations use a phone tree to reach their members.  Each person signs up to make several phone calls to other specific people when they receive a phoned message.   Phoning can be very successful because of the personal contact and low cost.  However, sometimes the phone tree can be labor intensive and unreliable.  If one or two people are away or cannot phone for some reason, a substantial portion are not called. 

•     Tabling:  Setting up a table with volunteers and literature at public events is an effective way to get information out.  It helps to have a petition on a current issue for people to sign, and be visible in an attractive way.   We set up tables at farmer's markets, Earth Day, Fourth of July at the Marina, street carnivals, health fairs, and other places where people congregate.  Since the Gray Panthers are political, we usually include voter registration, distribute our newsletter, and if allowed, sell t-shirts: 

•     Speakers Bureau:  If we are on a specific campaign, it is useful to develop a speaker's bureau to cover particular issues, such as single payer health care, environmental concerns, current elections or voter registration.  Programs and speakers can be offered to senior centers, senior residences, and organizations and groups interested in hearing about our topics.  When making a contact at a senior residence, we find it important to ask for the activities director, who can schedule a meeting.  Local Chambers of Commerce often have lists of local organizations which can be targeted for speaking engagements.

•     Personal contact:  The most important way to get participation is through personal contact.  This can be accomplished through meetings and social activities, by personal invitations to a meeting, being with people where they congregate, and phoning them occasionally.  Having a movie night, meeting at a coffee shop, hanging out at sidewalk café's, expressing concern when they are ill or having a problem, or arranging to speak to other organizations on issues and making personal contact--all these are ways to connect to people and encourage their participation in your organization.  Contacts must be followed up with a copy of the newsletter, a note or a phone call.

•     Visibility:  When an issue arises that requires action and your organization has a visible part in a protest, demonstration or support activity, the organization becomes attractive to people with like interests.  Going to city council or county boards of supervisor meeting to talk on an issue, attending state legislative hearings, participating in community actions--all work to bring your organization to the attention of the community.  Members can take these opportunities to give out newsletters, wear t-shirts and speak on behalf of your organization. Also, having letters published in local papers brings public attention.

It is important to both reach out to those who use the internet and accommodate to those with limited internet access.  It requires more effort, and more funds, but the results are worth it.  It keeps our organizations and communities viable.

Events with Elder Participation

Most people don't like to talk about the disabilities associated with aging.  Commercial ads for pharmaceuticals, senior living and elder activities often show healthy elders flirting, playing golf and on cruises.  However, newspapers may have sections filled with ads for Alzheimer facilities and convalescent and nursing homes.  Most elders are somewhere between these extremes.

We find that elders residing in the community either live in their own homes, in senior housing, or in assisted living facilities.  Many are hard of hearing.  They may have given up driving and are in need of transportation, and some may have vision problems, memory lapses, high cholesterol, diabetes, arthritis, low income and mobility problems. However, their brains are functioning, and they have social and political interests.  So when planning an event to include seniors, it is helpful to accommodate their limitations.

When asking people to participate in an organization, it is wise to begin by inviting them to an event that is interesting.  It is the kiss of death for a newcomer's future participation if he or she arrives at an organization's business meeting where everyone knows each other and business is conducted in a sort of jargon without explanation of the topic.

In general, it is better to have day-time events, as many do not travel after dark.  One should always include information about public transportation and car pools, and whether the facility is wheelchair accessible.  Reminders near the time of the event are important, either by email, postcard or phone call.   To make people feel welcome, the personal touch of a greeting by designated hosts, name tags and a sign-in is important.

For the program, it is essential to have a good working public address system for the hard of hearing and a well-lit facility for safety.   Handouts of flyers and written material with 12 point font or larger, or easels with paper are better than power point and slide presentations, especially when the lighting is questionable.  (Some people find power point and slide shows hypnotic and sleep through them.)

There should be enough chairs to seat everyone.  Some thought should be given to food served--avoid high cholesterol foods, such as fatty cheeses, deep fat fried items, high salt dishes and excessive sweets.  Fruits and veggies, dips, crackers and chips, breads and spreads, meats and fish, cookies and cake are popular as are fruit juices, decaffeinated coffee, tea and alcoholic beverages.  And don't forget vegetarian and kosher dieters.

The inclusion of this important population segment in our organizational work can improve our communities and lead to a better society for all generations.  Our elders care about important issues and topics.  They have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who need education, go to war, work for peace, need good health care, and must find work.  It may take special efforts to engage seniors in political and social activism, but it is well worth it.


Internet use and email | Pew Internet & American Life Project

Pew Research Study: Technology and Americans with Disabilities. by John Davy on January 27, 2011

Pew Internet & American Life Project

Who's Online and What Are They Doing There? By Sarah Perez,

About the Author

Margot Smith, Dr.P.H. is a retired social scientist who chaired the Berkeley-East Bay Gray Panthers for eight years. Many thanks to Harry Brill and Michael Lyons for their help.