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Libraries offer seniors more than books
[November 29, 2008]

Libraries offer seniors more than books

(Newsday (Melville, NY) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 29--Libraries cannot be all things to all people.

For Michael Vezzi, a retired civil engineer from Mineola, it takes eight of them to satisfy his varied interests and quest for details.

At his Mineola hometown library, he finds the books he needs and takes a yoga class. To feed his love of history, Vezzi, 70, attends lectures in Garden City and Jericho. In East Meadow, there's more history to discuss, in addition to current events rap sessions. At the Levittown library, Vezzi finds reference material on taxes and government issues.

When he feels like traveling, Vezzi taps into the outings offered by the Syosset library. He has even had career counseling at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library and joined a book club at the Hicksville library.

Over the years, Vezzi has managed to tailor offerings from Long Island's public libraries to enrich his retirement years.

But down the road, officials say library-hopping may not be necessary. Recognizing that when it comes to seniors, one size does not fit all, officials are designing programs to better accommodate the established-in-life crowd. And while they still offer space to various organizations for meetings and countless other services for the community as a whole, libraries are planning to do more for older residents.

"We'll be doubling the senior population in this country from 35 million to 78 million in the next two decades," said Allan Kleiman, 57, assistant director at the Old Bridge Public Library in New Jersey, who addressed the issue of older patrons at a recent conference of Nassau librarians. "This has implications for libraries."

Officials of the 54 libraries in the Nassau Library System and 56 in the Suffolk Cooperative Library System are using feedback from seniors about the kind of services they'd like to see, hoping to draw them in.

Among the suggested changes to make libraries more friendly to the older population are:

Dedicating senior spaces for patrons who prefer quiet rooms, away from young-adult chatter.

Forming senior advisory boards and groups to recommend and fund programs.

Creating programs to help baby boomers prepare for career changes.

Adding audio books and large-print books and other options.

Holding intergenerational programs to dispel stereotypes and tap seniors as mentors.

Reflecting Long Island's diverse population by offering ethnic and cultural programs and activities sculpted for different age groups and varying interests.

Some libraries are already acknowledging the different needs among boomers and retirees, reflected in the programs offered.

For Brigitte Castellano, the Middle Country Library in Selden provides a monthly meeting place for the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights, a group she founded in 2002. The group lobbies for legislative changes to protect children, including those cared for by their grandparents.

"I'm very impressed and grateful," said Castellano, 62, of Wading River. "We have a great room there. We're going to have a Christmas party for the clients. I think they do a great job. If I tell them I need a special time of day ... they're very accommodating."

At the Bellmore Memorial Library, adult services librarian Patti Paris oversees two senior groups. One meets just to socialize. The second, more active group plays Wii games and takes trips. Members attend concerts and computer courses.

"We have a band come in and play on weekends, and we get 30 to 50 people," said Sal Navasaitis, 64, of Bellmore. "We had a bus trip to visit mansions in Massachusetts, and it was full -- 36, 38 people."

Elizabeth Olesh, 35, manager of outreach services for the Nassau Library System, said, "You can go to almost any library any day and find something for seniors. Libraries are increasingly important as community centers. In the past, we focused on information and referral," she said. Now, "people are looking for ways to connect."

That same awareness is mirrored by Suffolk libraries.

Valerie Lewis, outreach coordinator of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, said, "In a lot of places, the focus is placed on seniors. Most of our libraries are in graying communities."

Like other libraries in communities with many older residents, the Hempstead Public Library has a large senior fan base already. "We do blood pressure screenings, art lectures," director Irene Duskiewicz said. "During tax season [when free help is offered], this is like Grand Central Station."

Libraries are also accommodating their oldest patrons. In Setauket, 20 to 25 seniors are picked up by bus once a month and brought to the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library for a lunch program with music, a film or a slide show.

At the Patchogue-Medford Library, librarian Philip Luppy sends large-print books, tapes and DVDs to 26 homebound patrons who return them in postage-paid envelopes.

In Holbrook, the Sachem Public Library recognizes the changing roles of some grandparents. For National Grandparents' Day in September, the staff held a tea party for 50 grandparents and their grandchildren.

"Grandparents frequently are caregivers," said Linda Overton, head of children's services at Sachem. "They're looking for things to do" with the youngsters.

While multiple-library user Vezzi acknowledges that libraries are evolving to accommodate older residents, he believes he'll still bounce from library to library to get his fill.

"My general impression," Vezzi said, "is that it [senior programming] is getting better. But you can't get one library to do everything because it'd put a tremendous financial burden on them."

But library officials say it may be just a matter of doing things differently.

"When I first started, outprogramming tended to be aimed at families -- mothers and preschoolers," said Catherine Creedon, director of the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor, who has had a 33-year career among the stacks. "But now, libraries really understand that they have a role as a community center."

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