Abstract: A University-Community Action Partnership to Generate New Insights on Age-Friendly Communities during the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

A University-Community Action Partnership to Generate New Insights on Age-Friendly Communities during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Independence BR C, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Althea Pestine-Stevens, PhD, Research Project Coordinator, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Clara Scher, MSc, Doctoral Student, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Natalie Pope, MSSW, MBA, Doctoral Student, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Emily Greenfield, PhD, Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Background & Purpose: Age-friendly community initiatives (AFCI) are multisectoral collaborations to improve the built, social, and service environments of geographic communities for older residents and persons of all ages. Since 2016, two philanthropies in northern New Jersey have seeded the development of AFCIs in their grantmaking regions, which has spurred the development of the North Jersey Network of Age-Friendly Communities (NJNAFC). Researchers at the Rutgers School of Social Work have studied the development of these initiatives as part of an action research project. Our paper highlights how this long-standing partnership facilitated quick-action research on the role of the AFCIs during the COVID-19 pandemic. We describe how we designed and implemented this project to generate actionable insights of relevance for community leaders and to advance broader knowledge on AFCIs as an emerging form of community practice.

Methods: The researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with the core teams for the eight inaugural communities of the NJNAFC in the winter of 2020-2021. Individualized interview protocols were based on various background information, including five prior waves of qualitative interviews since 2016; a comprehensive survey conducted several months prior; and researchers’ notes from NJNAFC regional meetings. The interview questions asked participants to describe their team’s involvement in programs and services in response to COVID-19, with probes on how their efforts were part of a broader community network response to emergent needs. We conducted a qualitative descriptive analysis—including thematic coding, memo writing, and team meetings—to understand the roles of AFCIs in their communities during the pandemic.

Results: Analysis of the interview data indicated four primary themes to describe the roles of the AFCIs during the pandemic. First, “creator” refers to how the core teams created events, programs, and services to address community needs during COVID-19. The second role, “amplifier,” describes how core teams amplified their partner organizations’ capacities to include, engage, and serve older residents. AFCIs also were “good community partners” by providing time-limited financial, instrumental, and informational support for other organizations. The final theme was “communication broker,” wherein initiatives facilitated bidirectional and systematic exchanges of information across networks of community residents, partners, and state or regional entities.

Discussion: We discuss ways in which this project demonstrates the value of long-term, university-community partnerships to advance community practice research for the benefit of community leaders and academic researchers. We discuss our strategic efforts to disseminate the findings back to the NJNAFC through a co-facilitated network meeting, as well as summarizing the findings in an easy-to-share infographic. This output demonstrates the social work value of service in the role of the researchers and the AFCIs’ enhanced ability to serve their communities. For longer-term scholarly purposes, we are conducting additional analysis to develop a multiple-case study, which will advance theory more generally on the organizational “space” that AFCIs occupy in social work and the field of aging. We conclude by discussing the generative capacity for action research to continue the mutual pursuit of transformative community practice and collaborative knowledge production during a crisis and beyond.