Case 12: How a Municipality Can Serve the Elderly Public: The Case of the Ages Space (ESPAÇO DAS IDADES)
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Given the current economic and social context, there is a need to create projects that can contribute to the quality of life of the older population. The case study here presented evidences on how the public sector, and more specifically a municipality, can do this by creating and promoting a service, the Space Ages, that will satisfy the social needs of the citizens. This service promotes several initiatives connected to health, education and culture areas, contributing to the well-being, personal valorisation and social integration of the elderly people. To its success the involvement of the municipality, public in general and users was essential, as well as the communication strategy implemented.
KeywordsLife Satisfaction Leisure Activity Public Sector Organisation Community Satisfaction Ballroom Dance
“There have long been limited elements of a marketing approach in the public service … it was marginal to the core public services, consisting, at most, of the use of specific techniques, rather than the development of a marketing orientation” (Walsh 1994, p. 63). In the last few years, this situation has been changing since marketing began to be more considered in relation to core public services. The idea of satisfying the social needs and target-specific publics gathered more and more followers.
These social needs can be defined as a set of desires whose satisfaction is considered by the community as essential to the assurance of a certain quality of life. To Kotler and Lee (2006), marketing proved to be the best tool for planning in a public institution that wants to meet the citizens’ needs. The aim is to place the public service provider on a truthful and acceptable satisfaction level.
Ultimately, the social needs are what will serve as orientation in the activity of the public administrations and, consequently, may condition the supply of goods and services. Usually these entities act aiming towards the accomplishment of their vocation of satisfy the social needs, as much as possible, with the resources available. For that, it is necessary to define, identify and evaluate such needs (Chapman and Cowdell 1998).
At this point, it makes sense to refer that the adoption of a consumer-oriented marketing viewpoint is crucial to effective strategy development. For instance, to target the mature market, the first step is to understand the needs of the older people that are very specific and differ from those of younger people and even differ among the elderly (Moschis 2003). However, marketing towards a senior citizen is still a young subject (Meiners and Seeberger 2010), and in Portugal, it is commonly neglected by public and private organisations. This is even more serious when we deal with public services provided at a regional level. In this case, most of the times, the service quality and the study of the client’s needs and levels of satisfaction are simply ignored.
The above is reinforced by results of Dagger and Sweeney (2006) whose research indicates that service quality and service satisfaction significantly enhance quality of life and behavioural intentions, emphasising that customer service has both social and economic outcomes. These findings have important implications for managing public service processes that should be conducted under a customer-oriented approach in order to improve the users’ quality of life.
When we are dealing with a new service, as is the case of the service that will be presented in this study (Ages Space), the characteristics of original, non-traditional and trustable service are likely to have even more influence on the satisfaction formation process. Trust is important because it is the foundation from which every long-lasting, successful relationship is built. For new and innovative services, where the experience and the word of mouth are very important in the diffusion process, the satisfaction of the early adopters is crucial (Prenshaw et al. 2006). But, for this, it is crucial that the service be well promoted and revealed to the target.
Thus, municipalities have to communicate a complex variety of messages to a very different number of audiences. In some municipalities, this effort in communication is not new. From the early 1940s, some well-established municipalities have been continuously engaged in carefully selected aspects of public relations designed to achieve their communication objectives (Ball 2005).
A good communication strategy is no longer an optional tool for public sector organisations. It is essential for the organisational success and a fundamental component of how the general public and the people using public services judge how well those services are being delivered. Public sector communication should no longer be thought of and practised as a linear activity but instead function within a logic of a circular process in which it is necessary to listen, learn and inform people again and again. This means that public sector organisations, belonging both to central or local government, must learn to listen to their communities/customers. Beside this, it is necessary to learn from their customers, their experiences, seeing if their needs were met and how services could be improved. At the end, public sector organisations should share the results, showing their customers how they are responding to their needs and improving the services.1
The fast ageing of the earth’s population is probably the most important demographic change in the history of mankind (Meiners and Seeberger 2010; Moschis 2003). This trend is accomplished by the advances in health care that are continuously enabling individuals to live longer with a better quality of life (Hough and Kobylanski 2009). At the same time, the ageing of the population is putting pressure on pension funds, health-care systems and families (e.g. elderly care giving, family composition and quality of life in old age); hence, it is affecting all society, institutions and governments (Moschis 2003).
It is being noticed that elderly consumers are often without adequate social support. This lack can have strong implications on the individual’s health and well-being, since more socially isolated or less socially integrated persons tend to be less healthy, more depressive and likely to die (Kang and Ridgway 1996). Thus, the occupation of their leisure time with the correct activities may have significant implications for these individuals’ mental and physical well-being.
Thus, there is the need to create projects that can contribute to the quality of life of older population. The case study here presented attended to an increasingly social concern, having as aim to promote a better quality of life to the elderly population, since their rights, according to the United Nations Organisation,3 should be their independence, their participation, their assistance, their self-enhancement and their dignity.
The Creation of the Ages Space
The case here presented aims to discuss the problem of the elderly population and what a public entity, in this case the municipality of Covilhã (Portugal), can do to deal with the issue. In this way, a project named Ages Space (“Espaço das Idades”) was created, having a non-profit and public character, with the purpose of improving the living conditions of the elderly and mostly in need local people. This service promotes several initiatives connected to health, education and culture areas, contributing to the well-being, personal valorisation and a social integration of the elderly people. Thus, this initiative intends to prevent the loneliness of older people that go to the Ages Space to participate in various activities and at the same time provide some social support.
The Ages Space came from an original project of the Santa Maria parish (Covilhã). Initially, this project was developed in a building of the parish, and it provided some services as the electrician, the plumber and leisure activities, and it began by serving only a small group of citizens. Due to the great success of the initiative, the parish started to look at this idea as an opportunity to expand the project, for example, getting a bigger space to attend more users and creating partnerships which would bring more governmental and economic support, as well as to increment the number of services.
This was the beginning of the Ages Space created in September 2009 – a partnership between the Santa Maria parish and the Covilhã city council. For the implementation of the project, the municipality gave permission to use the area of the Popular Market, an infrastructure that at that time was not occupied. It is like a big storehouse divided in several sections and with multiple closed rooms that could serve as shops and offices.
To provide a quality service to aid its users, as it is its principal goal, the Space Ages has a group of qualified professionals in several areas, most of them being volunteers. There are also activities supported by some occasional sponsorship (e.g. supermarket chains such as the Continente and the InterMarché) whose aid is used to buy didactic material and to provide meals.
Regarding the target, despite the Ages Space being open to all who wish to know and visit it, its main target is the elderly people (18,000 in Covilhã), ageing more than 65 years old and/or retired, having the municipal social card, people with severe economic and social problems and disabled people. However, the family, students, reporters and people who decide to appear at the institution events are welcome. Nowadays, the place is monthly frequented by around a thousand people, but only a hundred are enrolled in the diverse ateliers. The remaining are the “passers,” because they are not daily users and only frequent the space for some sporadic activities/services. All of them can visit the installations where the services are provided from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Health: There are several rooms allocated to qualified professionals as the dentist, psychologist, optometrist, audiologist, physiotherapist and podiatrist. There is also a room dedicated to a natural therapy (natural purification of the body) and another dedicated to the laugh therapy. The users, having the municipal social card, can benefit from all these services with reduced costs. Usually in the first consult, they do not pay the service; the subsequent appointments have a discount of 30% (the base is the price charged outside the Space).
Leisure activities: The users can benefit from several activities such as computer work, pottery, couture, weaving, painting, embroidery, tapestry, carpentry, handcraft, music and gymnastic; this set of leisure activities is not static, because there are always new activities being introduced according to the desires of the users and the availability of the trainers, resources and space.
Social: The clothes and footwear donated by population in general are collected and later divided by age and gender and are repaired by the users of the space in the specific ateliers; later, these articles are distributed to the more under-privileged people (there is a social assistant to give some support and coordinate this area). Some of these ateliers have a symbolic price by attendant (4€/month) just for a question of self-sustainability and to buy new materials for new actions. Regarding sustainability, the Space also has a shop that sells all products and handcraft manufactured there. There are some activities for the grandsons during the attendance of the classes by the grandfathers. Services such as the hairdresser, copies, chapel, exposition room, multimedia room, canteen and cafeteria also exist in the space and are free or cost a social/symbolic price.
Education: The users can attend free classes in order to learn how to read and write. There are some informative sessions regularly developed in several areas, as for example, the prevention of violence against elderly people and explanation about diseases such as Alzheimer, cancer and coronary problems
There are three musical groups: one dedicated to the Portuguese traditional music (“Tantos e +1 – Cantares Tradicionais”), other to contemporary music (“Os Lua Nova”) and the last to antique popular music (“Coro das idades”); there is also a group in formation, the REVIV, whose aim is to revitalise the folklore.
The anniversaries of all users are celebrated on the last day of the month.
Several activities are also carried out in order to celebrate some national/international events (The international day of the elderly, children’s day, the international day of diabetes, etc.), as well as dancing days and parties related to some Portuguese traditions (e.g. popular saints).
The marketing mix variable communication has special importance in the public sector scope, aiming the diffusion of the information regarding to all public exchanges established between the public entities and the citizens. In this case, since the Covilhã municipality is the entity responsible by the Space Ages, there is a special attention and a great effort and collaboration between both organisations in order to provide more and better communication/information to the citizens. Usually the communication activities are conceived by the Space Ages director and his team and approved/supported by the municipality responsible for the social area.
Thus, regarding the communication policy, the person responsible for the Space Ages prepares a monthly report for the Covilhã municipal council, where all activities, expositions and events that will occur are described. In turn the municipality publishes the information on its website. Internally there is also a strong disclosure of the provided services, activities and events through promotional campaigns including flyers, posters and posts written on the official blog (www.espacodasidades.blogspot.com).
The events are also a very useful way to communicate and more specifically the public relations, tool used by the organisation – it usually brings more people to know the project and generate the so useful word of mouth to promote these kind of services.
Besides these actions, the Ages Space also benefits from publicity. Thus, several reportings and news about the project were done, by means of the media, not only at regional level, but also at national level. These communicational pieces focus on the activities and/or events occurred in the Ages Space, as well as some information about its functioning and reasons why the project came to exist. For instance, in 14 August 2011, the Ages Space was mentioned on a frequently watched programme on a Portuguese National Television Channel (TVI) by an opinion leader (Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa). Another example was performed by another TV channel, the RTP, that produced a news report talking about the overall project, its potentialities and its future perspectives.
Due to its originality and innovativeness, not only at national, but also at European level, the Space Ages was visited and congratulated by several entities and personalities (e.g. on 3 August 2011 the organisation received the visit of a delegation from the European Committee).
Results, Implications and Future Perspectives
Activities performed in the social area also had an increment of over 50% in most cases (comparing 2010 and 2011); that is, there was a significant number of users involved in the preparation, repairing and restoration of items like clothes, footwear, toys, domestic equipment, furniture, baby products (e.g. strollers, baby carriers, bouncers) to donate. This result consolidates the social and humanitarian character of the organisation and, at the same time, motivates the elderly to continue to be useful to society, especially in these times of financial crisis.
Despite the current economic factors affecting Portugal, and the reduction of the governmental support, this project is able to continue since its sustainability is assured by the municipality financial aid of 40.000€/year that is used for the salary payment of the workers and in the maintenance of the place.
At this time, without the provision of more public financial support, Francisco Pereira, one of the people responsible for the organisation, in a personal interview carried out for this research, referred that the administration would not make new improvements in the building, as well as not implement some punctual actions in certain occasions, as is the case of the delivery of food baskets at Christmas. Another situation reported by this person was that a considerable number of underfunded families, not having any other kind of support, would go Ages Space to request help. These situations are sometimes very severe and touch the administration that faces great difficulties in attending to all social problems.
There are also difficulties in the creation of new projects and activities because as Francisco Pereira stated “sometimes projects of the volunteers appear, and are very interesting as is the case of one proposed by a lawyer that wished to help by offering free consultants, but he was impeded by the Portuguese attorneys chamber”. The interviewed also comment the lack and the need to acquire the insurances for the building and for the users and volunteers.
As a project to develop in future, the administration intend to invest in the buying of a vehicle to facilitate the delivery of services (e.g. service of an electrician or a plumber, physiotherapy) in the elderly users’ home, because the geographic area is vast, and it is necessary to have an adequate transport. A lower price than the conventional would be charged.
In the social/leisure area, there is the intention to create a “cavaquinhos” (typical Portuguese musical instrument) school, to promote some contests of amateur “fado” (traditional type of Portuguese music), as well as cooking competitions, and to have classes of ballroom dance.
The scope of the public marketing application implies the existence of activities characterised by the following aspects: the search of the public interest and the relative independence towards the market (Martín 1993). The Ages Space, a project from the Covilhã municipality, follows these principles by attending a need of the elderly citizens and their families, and by not guiding its action by profit and market conditions.
Analysing this case, at the end, the reader is left with the idea that this is an innovative project that we should value and respect due its social action and its aims in helping the more unfortunate people, fight against the loneliness and the sedentary life, promote interaction and provide health-care services, to significantly improve the quality of life of the elderly people. To Fagerström et al. (2007), this improvement in the quality of life will bring life satisfaction that, in turn, is concerned with socio-economic factors such as the economic situation, social network and social support.
This was a good example on how local governments facing this demographic trend severer in the inlands can find a solution to improve the life quality of citizens. Particularly, in this case, the elderly population is very important because it represents an important percentage of the voters in the municipality that is desirable to appeal to. This can be done by providing good local government services that, according to Auh and Cook (2009) and Sirgy et al. (2000), have been shown to be related to community satisfaction and attachment.
The success of the Ages Space is associated to the correct diagnosis of the target problems. The products created are suitable to the clients because there was a careful study of their needs and desires. However, more effort should be put into the segmentation scheme. According to Moschis (2003, p. 521), this is extremely important. Focussing only on chronological age is a mistake – “older people’s behaviour is more sensitive to their needs and lifestyles, which are in turn influenced by life-changing events and circumstances they experience”.
Video and conversation club afternoons
Cinema and theatre visits
Workshops about financial education, environmental degradation and other current/hot topics
Training of a volunteer group that could be involved in some causes
Periodic talks/debates with an invited speaker
To NECE – R&D Centre funded by the Multiannual Funding Programme of R&D Centres of FCT (Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology), Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education and to master students Allya Jussub, Filipa Rodrigues and Mafalda Carlota.
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