September is National Senior Center Month. This year’s theme, “Senior Centers, the key to aging well” provides an opportunity to highlight the success of senior centers in promoting health, reducing social isolation and promoting community support of older adults.
The National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) estimates that there are more than 11,000 centers nationwide. Here in Cleveland and across the county senior centers provide daily activities, offer hot meals and serve as connectors for older adults, their families and the communities in which they live.
“Loneliness is the new smoking”
A vibrant senior center is a powerful tool in the battle against social isolation and loneliness. Recent studies have pointed out the health risks of isolation. Humans are social animals, and loneliness and isolation impact overall health. Lonely people are more likely to experience high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and cognitive decline. One study suggested that loneliness is as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The impact is significant enough that insurance companies are asking physicians to address “loneliness” in their annual wellness visits with their patients.
Baby boomers are at greater risk for isolation than the generation that preceded them. Boomers are more likely to live alone. A greater percentage of boomers never married, compared to their parents. Divorce was more common. They have fewer children than their parents did. An increasingly mobile society means they are more likely to live apart from other family members.
So, with a growing population of people over the age of 65, and more attention being placed on social isolation, senior centers are in high demand, right?
No, they’re not.
Even as the senior population increases, many senior centers report declining participation. Others have closed, citing declining enrollment or reduced funding. The estimated median age of senior center participants across the country is 75. Baby boomers are swelling the ranks of retirees in the United States, but they aren’t showing up at senior centers.
A Perception Problem
What comes to mind when you hear the term “senior center?” A survey of baby boomers suggested that many did not see a senior center as relevant to them or their needs. Often they are unaware of what services are available. They tended to look elsewhere for services or information. For some, the greatest barrier was the idea of going to a senior center. “That’s for old people.” There are three generations of Americans of retirement age. Expectations, wants and needs vary widely. Baby boomers are retiring in large numbers, but they are not the only people in retirement. Developing a “one size fits all” program would be nearly impossible.
What we need and what we want
A friend of mine mused on reaching retirement, “I don’t think about retirement. I think about what I want to do next.” That survey of baby boomers asked respondents about their anticipated activities in retirement. The prospect of more leisure time brought opportunities to spend time with friends and family, learn a new skill, participate in civic life or travel. There was also concern expressed over the need to provide care for a spouse or other loved one. Senior centers are uniquely positioned to support these needs and wants.
A scan of the programming at the Rose Centers for Aging Well provides some insight into the ways that centers have evolved to meet the needs of today’s older adults. Yes, there is bingo and arts and crafts. But there are also music classes, fitness and exercise programs, theater projects, computer training and financial education. How about a talent show or overnight camping trip? These are a few examples of the programming at Rose Centers that help connect people with their communities. The centers also help connect people with volunteer opportunities, provide access to civic leaders and introduce people to services that help them more successfully age in place.
“A center without walls”
Successful centers have evolved to become part of the community. Some of the most active programs are those within community centers. A variety of intergenerational programs that bring children and young adults into the Rose Centers. Programs also provide opportunities to be in the community. Dabney Conwell, Executive Director for the Rose Centers, aims for a “center without walls” where the needs of the consumers are met regardless of their location - to be part of their lives, not apart from them. Rose Centers and programs like them across the country are evolving to address the challenges of social isolation and fulfill our mission to advance support for older adults and caregivers.
Learn more about:
Social Isolation and health risks: https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks
Cigna Loneliness Index: http://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf
Eileen E. MaloneBeach & Karen L. Langeland (2011) Boomers' Prospective Needs for Senior Centers and Related Services: A Survey of Persons 50–59, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 54:1, 116-130, DOI: 10.1080/01634372.2010.524283 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01634372.2010.524283