Senior Centers: Reimagining Aging and Exploring New Opportunities

September 1, 2019, Department, by Lesha Spencer-Brown, MPH, CPH

2019 September Health Wellness Senior Centers Reimagining Aging 410

"Aging is not ‘lost youth’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength." — Betty Friedan, American Author and Activist

This September, NRPA will join the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC)  in celebrating National Senior Center Month. This year’s theme, “Senior Centers: The Key to Aging Well,” aims to highlight the importance of senior centers in providing opportunities for older adults to connect with vital community resources to help them improve their health and maintain a good quality of life.

Aging is often approached with fear and uncertainty in our society. Getting older, for many, is associated with not being able to do the things one was once capable of doing, losing one’s independence and becoming dependent on kids and grandkids or community members. There’s also the possibility of having to move out of one’s home into a nursing home or some type of assisted living facility. And, for those who can stay in their homes, there’s concern about not being able to connect with and contribute to the community. However, this does not have to be what’s expected as we get older.

The Evolution of Senior Centers
For decades, senior centers have helped older Americans remain active, engaged and independent in their communities. They have provided them with tools, resources and opportunities to improve and maintain their health, as well as with outlets for continuing education, mentoring and volunteering; and for socializing and rekindling friendships or making new friends.

“Whether we are stepping to the beat, at a city park or into a yoga pose, the goal of the Older Americans Center is to create a socially pleasant and positive experience for everyone,” says Kaci Wehr, community engagement coordinator at the Older Americans Center, operated by the City of Jasper Parks and Recreation in Indiana. “With a growing active-aging population, we have responded by encouraging healthy living for each individual that steps in our door. Serving our county’s residents age 55 and up, the Jasper Park and Recreation’s Older Americans Center strives to create an environment of social, mental and physical well-being.”

Since the first senior center — William Hodson Community Center — opened in the Bronx, New York, 76 years ago, the more than 10,000 senior centers across the United States that collectively serve more than 1 million older adults each day have significantly evolved. Today’s senior centers are being reinvented to meet the changing and diverse needs of a rapidly growing aging population. They now offer wraparound services that include everything from transportation and mental and social health programs, to physical health, meal and nutrition programs, and social services assistance; including employment assistance, tax preparation, benefits counseling and case management. They also offer support groups for individuals and their caregivers, intergenerational and LGBTQ activities, special events, such as talent shows and health fairs, and inclusive programs for new Americans and people with disabilities. Furthermore, centers are offering “beyond the walls” activities, such as coordinated trips to the grocery stor and malls; field trips to museums, concerts and state parks; and opportunities to join breakfast and lunch “restaurant groups.”

In addition to transforming the types of programs and services offered, senior centers are being renamed to reflect the welcoming environment awaiting all older adults, from the youngest older adult to the oldest older adult. Results from a Google search of senior centers bring up names, such as “Active Adult Center,” “Lifelong Learning Center,” “Active Aging Center,” “60+ Activity Center.” This is an important shift, as nearly half of local park and recreation agencies target individuals 50 years and older for their older adult programming.

Unsurprisingly, this shift in focus is driving the need for programs tailored to this wide age group of older adults (50 plus to centenarians) with varying abilities and interests. Programs are thoughtfully and intentionally scheduled for the various age groups to ensure that they can participate. The reality is that many older adults are still actively engaged in the workforce.

We all age! Fortunately, the negative stereotypes surrounding aging are shifting, and more and more aging adults are embracing their older years. They are stepping into this phase of their lives with a sense of pride and the determination that age will not define them or their abilities. They are constantly seeking out ways and opportunities to continue to lead healthy, fulfilling lives and contribute to their communities. Parks and recreation continues to have a major role to play in helping older adults achieve these goals.

A Senior Center Success Story

For the past several years, Cynthia has grappled with her weight and mobility and has had to use a walker and a cane for her daily limited activities. “When walking through the Senior Center halls, I would huff and puff,” Cynthia explains. “I knew I needed to change my lifestyle of eating and just being healthier.” To this end, she enrolled in the Rockville (Maryland) Senior Center’s Eight-Week Fitness Challenge, offered by the City of Rockville Department of Recreation and Parks, Senior Services Division. Participants in this eight-week challenge must track their minutes of physical activity every day, which could include the use of the center’s exercise equipment, such as treadmills and elliptical machines at the center’s fitness room, or any of its more than 55 weekly exercise classes.

In the weeks following Cynthia’s participation in the challenge, she also enlisted the assistance of one of the center’s eight personal trainers to help further her success. Today, Cynthia is no longer using her walker for most of her daily activities and has lost 65 pounds! Her achievement has been a dream come true for her. “Being encouraged, morally supported and the compliments made me want to do more and get others to do the same,” she says proudly.

“It is an extraordinary process to behold when watching members reach their health and wellness goals,” says the center’s sports and fitness supervisor Christine Klopfer. The Rockville Senior Center fitness program offers a state-of-the-art gym, exercise classes of all levels, including yoga, Zumba, “Drums Alive” and balance training.

Note: Cynthia’s story was obtained through NRPA’s How Do You Promote Healthy Aging in Parks Success Story Contest.

Lesha Spencer-Brown, MPH, CPH, is NRPA's Health and Wellness Senior Program Manager.