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Why We Need to Get Rid of Senior Centers

Thankfully, there's a movement to make the relics multigenerational

The past few weeks have been a little stressful in my family. We’ve been grappling with where my 85-year-old mom might live in the next chapter of her life. It’s time.
She might move into an apartment in an assisted care community or move in with one of her two daughters. One comment she made about the assisted living communities she visited says worlds to me: “Everyone is old, and they’re not all that friendly.”
That raises the question: Why must old people cluster together where they live and where they socialize? I think it could be much better for them to mix with multiple generations.

(MORE: Smart Way to Curb Senior Loneliness)
Time to Make Centers Multigenerational

That’s why I say: Let’s get rid of senior centers.
I’m not suggesting abolishing places for older men and women to get together and to learn things. I’m suggesting turning traditional centers into places where young and old spend time together.
This idea is actually catching on.
As Nancy Henkin, the founder and executive director of Temple University’s Intergenerational Center asks: “Instead of a senior and a youth center, why not one energetic community center where people come together and intentionally nurture trust and empathy through interacting with each other?”

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Intergenerational offerings are buzzy these days. As Next Avenue reported a few months ago, one of the recent winners of The Eisner Foundation’s Eisner Prize for Intergenerational Excellence was Bridge Meadows, of Portland, Ore. — a community of adoptive parents, foster children and low-income elders, run by Derenda Schubert. (The Eisner Foundation was created by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and his wife, Jane.)
“If we don’t have multigenerational solutions and invest in one group at the expense of another, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Trent Stamp, executive director of The Eisner Foundation, told Next Avenue.
What Centers Offer Today

To be clear, the nation’s 11,400 senior centers often do a good job offering adult daycare or activities to more than a million people a day. They typically feature an assortment of programs and services including meals; health, fitness, and volunteer opportunities; educational and arts programs and bingo. And compared with their peers, senior-center participants generally have higher levels of health, social interaction and life satisfaction, according to the National Council on Aging.
But senior centers tend to have the same stifling, stodgy, old age-vibe my mom found at assisted living communities.

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So I’m intrigued that at the Aging in America Conference I’ll be attending next week in Chicago — the annual extravaganza from the American Society of Aging — there’ll be a full-day program called 2015 Senior Centers Summit: A Window to the Future. Leading experts will grapple with how to make intergenerational connections at senior centers and how to design and create buildings boomers will want to seek out.
Growing Interest in Using Them

There’s a growing demand for these new and improved centers, it seems. In a study of adults age 55 to 70 that’ll be presented at the conference, Senior Center Use Among Baby Boomers: A Change Is Coming!, University of Utah professors Marilyn Luptak and Frances Wilby found something surprising: “More than two-thirds of all respondents expected to be using senior centers in 2025,” reports Luptak.
That’s surprising because today, only 16 percent of those surveyed (mostly women) reported using senior centers. “To appeal to active boomers, many aspects of traditional senior centers need revamping — from schedules to activities to infrastructure,” Luptak says.
The New Senior Centers

Some senior centers are already shifting focus.
You can now find yoga and Zumba classes on certain senior center activity rosters, as well as instruction in computers, job counseling and resumé writing. In Utah, senior centers are joining forces with community centers, libraries and rec centers to make them more appealing as well as to combine resources, says Wilby.
But what I’m really pumped about are the centers for all ages.
For instance, The Weinberg Center for Balanced Living at the Manny Cantor Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has a vision that combines a settlement house of yesterday and a community center for today and tomorrow offering events and programs for people ages 0 to 100+. Membership is free for community members 60+.
My Second Home, in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., brings together people 50+ with physical and/or cognitive impairment and children from a daycare center next door. A pioneer in the intergenerational arena, My Second Home was established in 1998. Some of the shared child and senior activities: art projects, dancing, drumming, gardening, storytelling, and eating breakfast together.
Two weeks ago, The Family Services of Westchester opened the Lanza Family Center for All Ages in White Plains, N.Y., modeled after My Second Home. It’ll offer spaces where the various age groups will interact during planned intergenerational activities as well as through informal encounters. Children, teens and older adults will garden together, share meals, sing songs, cook side-by-side and participate in events that allow them to form lasting impressions and enrich each other’s lives, according to the center’s director Rebecca Lapel.
The goal is for young and old to break down age barriers and “develop an understanding for each other and maybe what they’re going though in their particular stage of life,” notes Lapel.
These are just a few examples, of course, of the future makeup of intergenerational senior centers.
Community Spaces for Young and Old

“There are a number of different ways that generations can come together in community spaces. For instance, libraries with intentional cross-age programming, senior centers in schools, adult-child day care centers, and multi-generational community centers,” says Henkin.
She’s quick to add that she isn’t trashing the old senior center.
“For years, senior centers have been funded by the federal government and they have served their purpose,” says Henkin. “The original intention was to reduce isolation, to provide nutrition and to promote socialization and that has worked.”
The problem is that traditionally the funding sources have been age-segregated, says Henkin. “Most backers for children, youth, and older adults have not yet recognized the need to come together as allies to develop a comprehensive, shared agenda. For many years, we had programs for young people and programs for old people. I propose we change the norms and values in communities and our society, so we can have places like My Second Home that are good for people to grow older, but also good for people to grow up.”
Why A Common Space Is Key

She thinks senior centers are just the ticket. “One thing we’ve learned is the importance of physical space — the gathering spaces that are welcoming for all generations and all ages,” Henkin explains. “We need to look at the physical infrastructure and think what do we have in our community where people can actually come together and build relationships.”
But success means more than plopping 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds together in a room. “You can’t throw people into a setting and expect magic to happen,” Henkin says. “The programs can’t just be older people teaching kids how to read, or kids teaching older people technology. That is one level and that’s good. But we need to go deeper and develop programs that in the long run help kids and older adults understand the needs and the strengths of the other person.”
The real magic that will come of that: “When a kid looks at an older person and says, if I’m lucky, I will get there,” says Henkin.

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