The New Generation of Senior Centers

"Senior centers" are updating their offerings—and their names



Illustration By Victoria Marcelino

B-7, I-25, N … um, not so much.

 

Today’s senior centers are suddenly the new, exciting and very cool place to be. Bingo, blood pressure screening and crochet are oh-so-passé.

If you’re part of the 50-plus set, it’s activities from African rhythm drumming circles, foreign policy discussion groups and ukelele lessons to yoga, Zentangle and Zumba that are drawing you to the centers.

“We’re not going to get people to come here if we just offer bingo. That has a really antiquated connotation of senior programming,” says Brinn Chute, the senior services supervisor for the City of Portsmouth, which operates its center under the aegis of the recreation department. It offers extensive and eclectic activities, classes and events that are fascinating and fun.

Even the semantics have been updated. Seasoned citizens now eschew the term “senior citizens,” preferring to be referred to as “older adults.” In the not-too-distant past, senior centers were stigmatized simply by their name, Chute acknowledges.

That’s why the Portsmouth facility bills itself as the Senior Activities Center and the Centennial Senior Center of Concord operates its wide variety of activities under the “GoodLife” banner.

GoodLife, along with the Senior Activities Center and several others in the state, is the archetype of the evolutionary community focal point meeting the needs of older adults.

This is not your grandfather’s senior center.

“That’s due in part to the changing face of aging. We have made it, finally, into a place in our society where age is not quite as much of a downer as it used to be,” says Vivien Green, the executive director of Concord’s center, which also engages in advocacy for its participants.

“There has been a demand from the newly retired individuals in their middle 60s and from those who are still working in their 70s. They are still vibrant,” she adds. “They have said about the older model, ‘This is not what I want. What was OK for my grandparents is not OK for me.’ They are looking for those new types of programs and services that are going to have that positive impact on the image they want to project of themselves.”

The traditional senior centers first opened more than 60 years ago in New York City, accommodating just the blood pressure screening, coffee klatch and sewing circle set. Welcome to the New Age.

“It’s the programmatic philosophy that you have to be aware of to make your center cool. You have to understand population demographics and the new trends to be able to cater to the newer senior,” says Chute. “Our main day-to-day goal is to provide a vibrant hub for seniors to gather. We want to offer activities that are fun and healthy, exciting and social. People come here because they really want to be healthy, and healthy means social, being physically fit, and having access to resources and information. We’re providing all of those needs in what is a really cool place.”

Bill Hodges, who is a retired engineer for the City of Concord and a regular participant in a variety of GoodLife’s offerings, agrees that this new generation of centers meets the demands of baby boomers and others who are older.

“There is an ongoing mixture of people, not only of interests, but of value as well. Many of the classes are offered free or for a nominal charge, and they have excellent instructors who are knowledgeable, capable and friendly,” says Hodges, a youthful 83 and a member of the center’s board of directors for six years. “I was particularly pleased when they started offering day bus trips and even overnight trips. I’ve enjoyed a number of very good ones. We had a wonderful trip to explore Providence, Rhode Island, and a marvelous cruise along the Charles River that went out into Boston Harbor.”

Another part of the newer centers’ appeal is aesthetic. Unlike some senior centers of generations past that were located in a dingy, dark basement or tucked away in a cast-off corner of a civic building or church, today’s feature modern, bright, open and airy spaces. Even better, they are comfortable, warm and welcoming.

“Inclusiveness is definitely the name of the game for us, and I suspect it’s so for other senior centers that are trying to not feel so antiquated,” says Chute, who never cards anyone for age or residency and tailors several programs to those on the younger side of the age scale.

“We like to consider ourselves a community center for older adults. A huge piece of it is coming here and finding people who are like you,” says Green, who has 2,000 participants in her database, 1,000 of whom come regularly each week. “There are some who want support in healthy aging, so they are looking for wellness, nutrition, exercise [programs], and the things that are going to keep them strong moving forward.

“There are others who are looking at expressing themselves creatively and that is an area which we strongly support in our programming. We provide an opportunity for people who perhaps put aside that artistic, creative side for their work or their family. Now they have the time to go and play in the art world and they are really seeking that.”

Fifty years ago, someone aged 50 was considered old. Really old. How times have changed.

“Our [minimum] age of eligibility is 50. That’s the second half of life now. It should be about having fun. The first half is the get-the-work-done time, and the rest is your time,” Green says. “We are not that old style, traditional senior center. We have tried to make ourselves unique, and our goal when we opened in 2013 was to create that opportunity for the public to see how older adults can really have a great time in the second half of life and be an example for others to emulate.”

Will the plan succeed?

“It’s a sure-fire bet,” says Hodges.


A matter of money

There are about 40 senior centers crisscrossing New Hampshire, but not all embrace the new model of varied and motivating programming. It is a luxury they cannot afford.

“It is indicative of the size of some of the communities,” explains Vivien Green, the executive director of GoodLife at the Centennial Senior Center in Concord, which is a non-profit 5013c funded by grants, donations, and fees charged for some services. “We’re still a very rural state so there is not a lot of support economically in some of the more remote towns for something with the size and scope of ours or a place like ours or the Salem Senior Center.

“Another factor is that the ages of some of those in the more rural communities is a little farther along the timeline. So they still have the vision of what those people desire and need. That may or may not be, but a lot of it is dictated by economics. Those other centers are more likely to be supported by their municipality and there are budget issues around that.”

Nonetheless, anyone 60 or older is eligible to receive free meals in a congregate setting regardless of income, and many of the state’s centers serve breakfast and/or a hot, nutritious lunch. The meals aren’t just an important contribution to physical wellness; they also help combat the loneliness of isolation and depression.

If you need a little shove to start, the coffee and conversation are pretty good. Every senior center is also a terrific place to find resources for health, social and aging issues in a supportive setting.

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