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 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Encanto A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Althea Pestine-Stevens, PhD, Research Project Coordinator, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Clara Scher, MSc, PhD Student, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Emily Greenfield, PhD, Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Natalie Pope, MSSW, MBA, Doctoral Student, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Background and 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 Age-Friendly North Jersey (AFNJ) alliance. 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 AFNJ 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 AFNJ 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 roles that AFCIs enacted during the pandemic and three types of capital that they drew on to enact these roles. Roles included being “creators” of events, programs, and services to address community needs; “advocates” to partners and networks to be more inclusive of older adults; “good community partners” that provided time-limited financial, instrumental, and informational support to other organizations; and “communication brokers,” wherein initiatives facilitated bidirectional and systematic exchanges of information across various networks. We further found that AFCI leaders primarily drew on three types of capital—human, social, and tangible—to enact these roles and mobilize community assets, oftentimes in cumulative ways.

Conclusions and Implications: 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 AFNJ 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. We also further analyzed the data toward scholarly publications that advance more general knowledge 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.