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Leisure Activities in Senior Centers

Rita Dichele - December 05, 2016 11:50 AM

I have been writing about the importance of leisure activities and its positive effect on seniors’ well-being, improving quality of life.  As I have previously mentioned there are many opportunities in the community to engage in recreational activities.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing where to look.  One of the most visible in the community is a gathering center most commonly referred to as senior centers.  Although they can go by other names:  community centers, intergenerational centers, and senior citizen bureaus.

Senior Center Attendance Rates
Even though there are senior centers, attendance in some communities can be limited.  In fact, it has been reported, over a period of time by the National Council on Aging, that only 20% of the senior population aged 60 and above participate at these centers.  That is roughly about 10 million a day who make the trip out to a senior center.  Given the diversity of center activities, for the sake of attracting more seniors, this can be a disappointing statistic.

Notwithstanding the array of center activities, accessibility may be problematic, especially when many seniors rely on their caregivers for day-to-day assistance in routine care. Access to the center may be difficult due to transportation issues.   Furthermore, socio-demographic and cultural values, living arrangements, social contacts, health and marriage status may also affect attendance at the local senior center.  

Even if these logistical obstacles were managed, the seniors themselves are often reluctant to leave their home and venture out to a senior center.  Seniors, I have found, can have a multitude of reasons why they don’t want to go.  “Oh … that is a place for old people”.  “Only the poor go there”.  “All they do… eating food that is disgusting”.  “How am I going to get there?”  “I have enough friends…besides they have cliques there”.  Finally…I have enough to do at home…I am very busy”.   So, poor participation may be a result of senior perceptions of what the senior center is really all about, despite the fact they might view the center as a positive place to visit – something they are reluctant to admit.

Caregiver Quandary
As you can imagine, all of these excuses can be addressed by the caregivers.  However, the task at hand can feel insurmountable leading to “why bother”.

Indeed it can be overwhelming.  However, it can help not only seniors, but caregivers as well.  It is a proven fact that leisure activities improve quality of living.  It can be described as contributing to successful aging:   the process of sustaining mental and physical function, minimal disabilities and active social engagements.  The research is out there that successful aging is possible to maintain, especially by participating in senior center activities.  The healthier your loved one, the easier it is for caregivers to manage their own lives and responsibilities.

Talk to your loved one’s physician who may be able to discuss the importance of engaging in recreational activities.   Currently, there exists a momentum in long term care to replace institutional care with home care.  Geriatric providers are looking at the community neighborhood as a means for providing resources so that the seniors are able to remain in their homes.  It wouldn’t at least hurt to ask for help in this regard.  


Generally, senior centers have monthly newsletters with a calendar of recreational activities and events.  If your town has a website, the senior bulletin is typically published on it.  If you like a hard copy, you can either pick it up at the center or ask to be put on the mailing list.  Some centers ask for a membership fee/donation.  Activities can be free or for a nominal fee.

Activities can range from sedentary to vigorous workouts.  Sedentary might include:  art classes, arts and crafts, knitting circles, musical sing- a-longs, writing workshops, current events discussions, poetry readings, and book clubs.  Rigorous activities might include:  tai chi, yoga, Pilates, chair exercises, walking clubs, and bocce.
There can be support for chronic disabilities, grief and loss, and medical vital sign check-ins.

Of course, there is always time to take in a scrabble game, cards, and bingo.  There can be computer labs where seniors can check their emails or Google.  Often there are computer classes even on social networking.  Facebook is popular, as it gives seniors another avenue to connect with new and old friends.

For Your Information
I’d like to leave you with some background information.  In 1965 the Older Americans Act was enacted to better the senior population, establishing programs, services, and supports that would enable the older adult to remain in the home.  As an outcome of the Older Americans Act, older adults were granted senior centers located in the community that provided coordinated programs and services.  Approximately 8,000 senior centers have been funded through sources that originated from the Older Americans Act.  There are approximately 12,000 to 16,000 centers across the United States that are located in either standalone buildings or as add-ons to existing community buildings such as town halls or schools.  The oldest senior center in the United States is located in New York City and was founded in 1943.

Senior centers originally began as congregate meal sites, especially for those who had nutrition issues.   Today, the average age of attendance is 70-85 with minimal attendance from the young old (60-70) and the frail elderly (85+).  Finally, as part of the Older Americans Act which was recently reauthorized in April 2016, monies are funded for focal point services such as community outreach, on-site meals, and grants for recreational activities.

If attendance continues to dwindle and attrition prevails, I am afraid that the future outlook for senior centers could be bleak.  Hence, try to remain open-minded yourselves, knowing that senior centers are waiting to open their doors to you someday.

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