September is National Senior Center month. Does the name “senior center” conjure up an image of a group of frail older adults having lunch together, with a game of bingo afterward? In reality, there is a lot more happening at these centers than just lunch and some chit chat, and the benefits of attending a center are numerous.
Alice, a 78 year old Carlisle resident, firmly believes in the value of senior centers. She was initially introduced to the Salvation Army Senior Action Center in Carlisle about 4-5 years ago. She had to walk through the center to access the AARP representative who was to help her with her taxes, thought it looked interesting, and asked if she could visit. She became a regular until she lost her daughter a little over a year later, fell into a deep depression, and stopped going anywhere except the grocery store. Throughout an extensive absence, the director continued to support her by telephone, and Alice credits this encouragement with making her “more determined to get back to the center.” Once her depression was medically stabilized, she returned and now attends five days per week. She describes the center as “my life” and says it “keeps me going.” Stephanie and Susan, who manage the program, are her “angels,” and she is at a loss for words to describe her appreciation for their genuine care and concern for each individual at the center. But attention from the staff is not her only reason to attend. Alice has developed friendships, enjoys a variety of recreational activities, and has a sense of purpose in being able to interact with peers and help “lift others who are down.” Alice’s physician has noticed a positive difference in her, and specifically asked her if she had resumed attending the center. Alice lives independently and is able to drive, and does not appear “frail” by any means. Although she could choose to participate in independent leisure activities, the center has become her “family” and she doesn’t want to imagine life without it.
Oversight for senior centers is the responsibility of local Offices of Aging, and while some public funding contributes to their services, each center is also responsible to maintain a sponsor and raise some of its own support. Individual centers may vary in their days and hours of operation, the types of programs and services offered, and their size. In general, their focus is on providing:
- Information and assistance
- Health and wellness programs
- Transportation services
- Meal and nutrition programs
- Social and recreational activities
- Educational and arts programs
- Employment assistance
- Volunteer and civic engagement opportunities
The National Council on Aging reports that “research shows that older adults who participate in senior center programs can learn to manage and delay the onset of chronic disease and experience measurable improvements in their physical, social, spiritual, emotional, mental and economic well-being.” The theme for this year’s National Senior Center Month is “Experts at Living Well,” and it appears that the Salvation Army Senior Action Center is helping Alice do just that.
Among older adults, reluctance to explore the services of a local senior center may be due to a number of factors. Lack of awareness or understanding of local programs, impaired health and/or functional status, transportation, and lifelong patterns of low participation in voluntary organizations may be some of the reasons why adults who would benefit from senior centers choose not to become involved. The only requirement to qualify for this service is to be age 50 or older. Most senior centers ask for a small annual donation to become a supporting member (the Salvation Army requests $20). Participants can come and go at will, and centers can provide referrals for transportation assistance if needed. For those who wish to eat a meal at the center, individuals must be at least age 60, there is a small donation per meal, and meals must be ordered in advance. Daily activities may be both organized and spontaneous, depending on participants’ desires, needs, skills, and interests.
Across America, more than 11,400 senior centers are serving over one million older adults every day. Cumberland County has six senior centers, located in Carlisle, Newville, Enola, Mechanicsburg, Shippensburg, and New Cumberland. Information about Pennsylvania’s senior centers can be obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of Aging website at www.aging.state.pa.us, or from the county Office of Aging. Are you feeling lonely or bored? A local senior center just may be able to help. . .
Karen Kaslow, RN