WEST ORANGE, NJ — In an effort to ensure the township is providing the services necessary for older residents to age in place, West Orange will be putting out a senior survey to learn where the town is succeeding and where it needs improvement.
At the June 13 Township Council meeting, the council voted 5-0 to approve Resolution No. 142-17, which allows the town to enter into a contract with Montclair State University to create the survey and analyze its results through its Center for Research and Evaluation on Education and Human Services. MSU will receive $10,000 for its work, which is being provided by a Partners in Health Foundation grant the township earned.
“The survey is important because it will enable the township to get a better understanding of the growing needs of our residents 55 and older,” Councilwoman Michelle Casalino told the West Orange Chronicle via email. “Not only will the information provide a needs assessment of new programs, it will provide us with data of how our residents are utilizing our current programs. Most importantly the report generated from the survey is essential for applying for future grants that would increase our services for residents 55 and older.”
According to the contract, MSU will meet with township officials to determine key areas of focus, and will then draft the survey. West Orange health officer Theresa DeNova said at the meeting that West Orange had already held that initial meeting with MSU. According to DeNova, West Orange officials on the committee include herself, the town’s social worker, senior public health nurse and Casalino.
“Together we have approximately 90 years in public health experience,” DeNova said. “We deal with senior citizens every day, we know the issues.”
According to Casalino, some key areas of focus include living arrangements, home modifications, mobility and transportation, health status, social opportunities, preparedness for aging, use and awareness of current services, and demographics.
DeNova said that, while the township and MSU drew inspiration from past surveys, such as the AARP national survey, there will be many parts specific to West Orange and the issues identified in the township.
“I wanted to kind of tailor it a little more toward West Orange. One thing I want to do in this survey, there’s going to be a section called ‘do you know,’” DeNova said at the meeting, explaining that she wants to determine if seniors know about the services already being provided for them. For this section, DeNova reached out to department heads throughout the township to gather a complete list of relevant services. “Maybe they don’t know about it. Maybe we’re not getting the word out.
“I want to have a section where they can put info that wasn’t asked about,” DeNova continued. “The survey can’t go on forever and we can’t ask every question in the world, but we’re asking about things that we think are important.”
All West Orange residents ages 55 and older are encouraged to take the survey. Though seniors are usually categorized as being age 65 and older, DeNova stressed the importance of including soon-to-be seniors, too.
“We want to gain knowledge from people that are going to be going into those years,” DeNova said at the meeting. “That’s the standard practice to try to do this needs-assessment.”
To ensure that each corner of the township’s senior population is accounted for, Casalino said the township and MSU will keep records of where surveys are being completed, as well as demographic information to see if any large populations are being left out. The key here, Casalino stressed at the meeting, is to get the word out about the survey. As such, the health department is reaching out to several organizations in town for help.
While MSU determined that 1,000 would be a good sample group for West Orange, Councilwoman Susan McCartney said she believes the response will be tremendous, and far exceed that number.
When it is ready, the survey will be available online through SurveyMonkey, as well as in written form for seniors who are not comfortable using a computer. MSU will provide training to members of the West Orange Health Department on how best to assist a senior in completing the survey without introducing personal biases or influencing their answers.
“When we sat down with them and expressed our concerns, especially about the bias issue,” Casalino said at the meeting, “‘it’s all in the training,’ they stated. They will train our employees as well as residents.
“It’s all in the training,” she repeated. “They train you how to outreach and how to present the survey.”
The survey will also be translated into Spanish and will include questions regarding home health care and ways in which the town can support caregivers.
Casalino has faith that MSU will do a good job with the survey and with the subsequent analysis, explaining that CREEHS at MSU has done several similar surveys for towns like Montclair, Paterson and Bloomfield, and that the CREEHS staff members have decades of experience between them doing this type of work.
“Our center conducts dozens of surveys each year,” CREEHS Director Eden Kyse told the Chronicle via email. “Over the past few years, this work has included eight communitywide needs-assessment surveys in municipalities across northern New Jersey. Four of these surveys have focused specifically on adults aged 55 and older.
“Our role (in West Orange) will be to design and set up the survey and to train West Orange survey administrators on best practices,” Kyse continued. “To increase response rates, the survey will be offered in multiple ways — online, paper, face-to-face. We will consult with the township on strategies to ensure that all residents aged 55 and older are aware of and know how to access the survey. We hope that the community will be engaged and interested in sharing their ideas and experiences.”
Kyse is confident that, due to its human resources, West Orange will be able to effectively administer the survey, allowing CREEHS to then better analyse the results.
“For some of these projects, CREEHS has administered the surveys and for others the township or other committee has served as the data collectors,” Kyse said. “This second option is beneficial primarily because the community knows best how to reach its residents. In fact, this is the arrangement for West Orange.”
While each survey is different, as it is tailored to the specific community being studied, Kyse has seen trends in past studies.
“Some of the service areas that have been identified as needs in other communities include: transportation, walkability, housing, taxes and communication,” Kyse said. “We do not expect West Orange to match this list exactly. We will analyze and summarize survey response data to identify what are the specific needs for West Orange. It will be up to the township to prioritize which key gaps can be addressed sooner and which may be addressed later based on available resources.”
Resident Mariel Clemenson expressed her excitement about the survey, saying it is vital for a town like West Orange to pursue such an undertaking.
“For the record, the 2010 U.S. census counted almost 12,000 residents of West Orange as being 55 or older — that’s 25 percent of the population,” Clemenson said at the meeting. “We’re looking forward to this upcoming survey.”
Drawing on completed surveys from elsewhere in New Jersey, Clemenson said she expects to see a need for better transportation, as well as intergenerational activities. Clemenson said she just hopes the township will reach out to residents for help in crafting the survey.
“I’d love to be involved,” West Orange resident Margaret Ames, a former geriatric social worker in New York City, said at the meeting. “When people choose to age in place there’s a lot of needs that can go unmet and I feel that West Orange is really a prime location for this kind of initiative.
“I’m hoping this will be a community needs assessment that will not only look to meet the current needs at this time, but also build infrastructure and model in place for those who will age in place as our population shifts in this age bracket,” Ames continued.
Seniors advocate Rosary Morelli stated that she hopes all analysis from the survey will be made public and she hopes the methods used in this process will be transparent.
“The survey will be an important building block to support municipal spending and to create an effective public policy response to senior residents’ needs to age in place,” Morelli told the Chronicle.
Others residents, like Susan Scarpa and Monica Perkowski asked more technical questions regarding analysis and survey dispersion control, prompting council President Joe Krakoviak to say he hopes the township will reach out to the many residents who have displayed knowledge on the subject and incorporate their feedback and expertise.
And Casalino certainly hopes West Orange embraces the survey, with as many residents getting involved as possible — whether to take the survey or to help get the word out about it.
“The contract we entered into allows for an unlimited amount of participants,” Casalino told the Chronicle. “In order to get a good sampling of all of our residents, we are going to depend on the various community organizations in the township for outreach. We are fortunate to have many active volunteers in our township.”
Casalino stressed that the survey is merely the first step in the township’s commitment to providing needed services to seniors and ensuring that our town’s older residents can age in place.
“Since I joined the council, the major concern of our residents age 55 and older appears to be with the awareness and communication of township programs and services to the public,” Casalino told the Chronicle. “We have been compared to our surrounding communities and I must agree that we are in need of improvement. However when I researched the information brought to us by our residents from these communities I discovered that these communities were able to provide many of their communications and services through grants and public fundraising. Additional research led me to discover that the first step in applying for the grants was to obtain a needs assessment and conduct a survey of township residents 55 and older.
“When I shared this information with Mayor (Robert) Parisi and Director DeNova, they were very supportive in having the Health Department engage in the process of applying for a grant and conduct the survey,” Casalino continued. “Immediately Director DeNova worked with our grant writer and within a few months the township was awarded the Partners in Health grant to conduct the survey. I appreciate the administration’s due diligence and our residents for coming forward to share the information from our surrounding communities. With so many working together I anticipate a successful outcome for the project.”