When my parents retired and moved to a quiet coastal town they soon met new friends of similar ages that actively participated in their local senior citizen center. Dad was a relatively young retiree at age 62 who emphatically believed that senior centers were places that strictly catered to “old folks”. He did not consider himself to be one of these so called “old folks” and initially expressed no interest in attending the center’s programs. It was not long before Dad was convinced by some persuasive peers that his sports prowess was in great demand at the upcoming Senior Olympic Games. This unforeseen adulation provoked a sudden change in my father’s viewpoint and participation. He tried out for the team and was invited to compete in several events hosted by their senior citizen center including horseshoes, shuffleboard, and (his all-time favorite) slow-pitch softball. I recall that he was noticeably honored to represent his local senior center at the Senior Games. Previously he had seen little difference between senior citizen centers and nursing homes; from that interaction forward his distorted perception of senior centers was altered in an unmistakably favorable way.
At different times in their lives, my retired parents benefitted by discovering unique interests through their local senior center. Dad discovered that the common negative perceptions of senior citizen centers were completely inaccurate, and Mom discovered the benefits of the center in her own time.
My mother did not attend their senior citizen center with Dad at this time because she instead jumped back into the workforce. Spending her time working and volunteering during this period was important to make her feel productive. However, some 20 years later after Dad had passed away she was delighted to join and make new friends at this very same local senior center. Mom plays dominos, exercises, participates in book clubs, and attends yoga classes with her new friends. They go on lunch outings to local restaurants, host craft fairs and garden shows, and have planned a trip to the Big Apple this fall. The companionship at the center fosters a true sense of belonging for my Mom. These friendships have flourished and expanded to spending time together outside of the center’s scheduled activities and programs.
Let us turn to some truths and dismiss some misconceptions that surround senior centers. No, senior centers are not like nursing homes. Nursing homes are designed to serve only older folks with extensive physical or mental needs. In contrast, senior centers are open to all those who are 50 and older, in any income bracket, and a person does not need to be on Medicare or Medicaid to participate in the programs. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA) nearly 11,000 senior centers serve 1 million older adults every day. It should come as no surprise based on population that about 70% of senior center participants are women with an average age of 75. Three-quarters of these older adults visit their center one to three times per week and spend an average of 3.3 hours per visit.
It is important to note that more than half of senior centers are designated central points for delivery of multiple age-related services in one location. This opens the door for many seniors to use services they otherwise would not have been able to access or even know existed. Research reported by the NCOA shows that when compared with their peers seniors that participate at their senior center experience better health, enriched social interaction, and overall enhanced life satisfaction.
National Council on Aging supports over 3,000 senior center professionals across the nation and is setting the standard for the future of senior centers. NCOA offers the nation’s only National Senior Center Accreditation Program. They give official recognition to senior centers who meet or exceed certain criteria, of which there currently are 250 approved centers.
Senior centers are funded through a variety of sources and typically most find it necessary to tap into several funding sources at a same time. Some centers rely on funding through federal, state, and local governments while others are recipients of public and private grants. Still others are supported by local businesses and some are fortunate to be the beneficiary of personal donations. My folks’ local center prominently bears the name of a local business women who has passed on but is credited with the founding and funding of the center. Most, if not all, of the senior centers depend on countless volunteers who unselfishly dedicate their time to maintaining the day-to-day operations.
Senior centers connect older adults to community services to help them stay healthy and maintain independence. Services that promote these ambitions are:
Senior centers try to adapt programs to seniors of all ages, genders, races, ethnicities, as well as those with physical or mental limitations. Moreover, they also develop activities aimed at their senior’s common interests, pursuits, hobbies, talents, and passions. For example, those with poor balance but who like exercising might find chair yoga is right up their alley. A senior with mild dementia might find board games mentally stimulating while another might prefer the comfort of listening to music. The green thumb of certain seniors does not go unnoticed at senior center sponsored garden shows. The multi-talented crafters proudly display their latest artistries at local arts and craft shows hosted by the center as well.
Some senior citizen centers provide daily bus services. However, if your center does not offer transport there are other ways to overcome this deterrent. If coordinating transportation for your senior is difficult for your family, consider hiring a caregiver for escorted transportation to the senior center. Some seniors find it necessary to be accompanied by their caregivers at senior centers to assist with toileting and mobility as well. Senior volunteers at the centers can also pitch in and help with rides to and from the center; also common are car pools to scheduled events. Senior volunteers helping their peers is visibly unique and mutually gratifying!
Senior centers recognize the importance of creating new opportunities for upcoming generations of seniors. You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that the local senior center has something of interest for your Mom or Dad regardless of their age, health, or overall condition. Plan a visit with your parents to their local center to discover what they have to offer! Whether it’s the Senior Games, luncheons, exercise, or road trips that appeal to them - don’t overlook the immeasurable impact that participating at a senior center can bring to the lives of your older parents!