If Sean Wright had his way, the Lexington Senior Center where he serves as director would be called anything but a “senior” center.
Yes, the center on the edge of the University of Kentucky campus serves adults aged 60 and older. And, yes, card games and bingo are still popular activities there.
But Lexington’s center is beginning to bear little resemblance to the senior centers of bygone days. Today, as Wright and his staff try to reshape offerings to accommodate a wave of aging Baby Boomers, it is becoming more dynamic, more accessible and, they hope, more appealing.
“It dawned on me that seniors want to do the same things that I want to do. So why are we treating them differently,” said Wright, who has been director for 10 years and, who at age 48, claims he’s the “oldest” person at the Lexington center. “Some of these seniors can run circles around me,” he said.
That realization appears to be taking hold across the country. In addition to changing the image of senior center as glorified bingo hall, center directors are seizing the opportunity to reinvent programming and break down barriers to participation.
“We’re not going to please all people,” Wright says, “but we hope we can make it more inviting – energetic.”
What’s in a name?
If you call it “senior,” will they come?
That’s the question posed in a National Council on Aging article title, “Tomorrow’s Senior Center: Dynamic, Accessible and Perhaps Not Even Called Senior.” The answer appears to be no, at least in the eyes of a majority of senior center directors surveyed on the topic.
Some 60 percent of directors said they don’t believe the name “senior center” will serve their communities well in the future. Seventy percent said Baby Boomers can’t relate to the name.
There’s a negative image or stigma associated with the current name,” one respondent was quoted as saying. “It suggests a stereotypical view of people sitting around in a wheelchair playing cards.”
Wright agrees. “People do not want to come to a ‘senior center’ anymore.”
Beyond the name
Wright admits, however, that it wouldn’t matter what a senior center is called if it doesn’t provide programming that better meets the needs of today’s older crowd. That means, he says, reaching younger seniors – the Boomers who make up more than two-thirds of the population over age 50 – as well as older seniors. It also means reaching both men and women. And it means serving those who are active as well as those who are not.
“So anything goes based on the participants’ wants, needs, desires,” he said.
Lydia Jacobs, program specialist for the Bluegrass Area Agency on Aging serving 17 counties in Central Kentucky, likewise stresses the importance of offering more dynamic programming.
“We have to literally change our way of thinking to get with these Boomers and figure out what they want, what we can offer them,” she says.
Jacobs adds that most of the senior centers in the Bluegrass region realize the need for change. Some, such as the Estill County Senior Center in Irvine, already have the wheels in motion.
“There are two different types of senior adults that utilize the Estill County Senior Center,” says director Darlene McKinney. “We have the ‘older’ senior, those over age 70 that attend during the day and enjoy Bingo, socialization and the standard senior center offerings. … The ‘younger’ senior, those age 55 to 69, on the other hand, are vastly different. They want to continue to be active and to do things they haven’t done before – like a bucket list.”
Those younger seniors, she adds, “love to dance, take trips and the opportunity to volunteer. The Boomer generation continues to advocate on issues that are important to them and are active in current political movements. They see themselves as people, not ‘seniors.’”
The Estill center, which is operated by the Estill County Fiscal Court, even offers a group drumming program called HealthRhythms and hot-rod and motorcycle chopper shows.
“As long as it’s a ‘legal’ activity, I’m for trying it,” McKinney says, with a laugh.
At the Lexington center, which is operated by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County government, aerobics classes are standing room only, and yoga and tai chi are becoming standard fare. Participants can play table tennis and billiards, do line dancing, attend art workshops, join book clubs, keep up with current events and more. The University of Kentucky’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute also offers a variety of educational and enrichment courses, shared interest groups, forums, day trips and events for center participants.
“The staff has to rein me in from time to time,” Wright says, “because I try to put on every activity they (seniors) ask for. If they can benefit from it, that’s my main concern.”
In addition to providing more appealing programming, senior centers are also having to become more accessible. That means addressing the common barriers such as health and transportation, but it also means taking such steps as extending hours of operation to weekends and evenings.
“We have a well attended tai chi exercise class – they meet two nights a week and every Saturday,” says McKinney, whose center was the first in the area to extend its hours. “We offer a Senior Cyber Cafe on Saturday mornings and … during the summer months we offer Coffee on the Court, an evening of music, coffee and a desert in a cafe type setting outdoors under the stars.
Physical accessibility will be greatly improved for the Lexington Senior Center in the fall of 2015 when they open a new 33,000-square-foot, two-story facility featuring what Wright calls an “open, collapsed environment.”
“Everything is going to be where people can easily get to it instead of everything being sectioned off and having to go down these long corridors. It will be a more open environment and everyone will be in closer relationship to each other.”
Providing a gateway
One thing that won’t be changing – at least anytime soon – is the role of senior centers as a gateway to the nation’s so-called aging network—the vital community services that can help them stay healthy and independent.
Senior centers have long offered a variety of programs and services, including meal and nutrition programs, health, fitness and wellness programs, transportation services, employment assistance, volunteer opportunities and public benefits counseling – many of which are provided under the federal Older Americans Act.
Those services will always be part of the senior center experience, Jacobs says.
“Every senior center is unique and caters to the needs and desires of their community,” adds Celeste Collins, director of the Bluegrass Area Agency on Aging and Independent Living. “The centers in the Bluegrass district each provide those core services, but are also doing some really cool things. I highly recommend everyone visit their local center and see what they have to offer.”