Bingo competes with tai chi as senior centers change with times

November 8, 2018

Bingo and lunch are great, but older adults today are expecting much more than those traditional staples from their senior centers.

In fact, the mission of senior centers has changed so much that many organizations nationwide have rebranded them as centers for active adults.

“Traditionally, people came to a center primarily for a meal, but we’re not seeing that so much any more these days,” says Bridget Schickel, senior center services director for the Westmoreland County Area Agency on Aging (WCAAA), which oversees 13 county centers for active adults.

The agency contracts with four providers that actually run the centers.

“About five years ago, the (WCAAA) dropped the word ‘senior’ and renamed its centers to make them more attractive to a younger set of the older population, which will be their members in the years to come,” Schickel says.

While meals are still a core service provided by the centers -- along with activities like bingo, parties and bus trips -- offerings are branching out into greater areas of both physical and mental fitness.

Staying engaged

The changes reflect people living longer and staying healthy, active and engaged in society at older ages, Schickel says. They’re driven both by what center users want and by what federal regulations allow or require.

“It’s amazing how many come here for physical activity and exercise,” says Mary Corsi, manager of the McKenna Center for Active Adults in Greensburg. “People are staying mentally and physically healthy longer nowadays. I’d say 99.9 percent of the people who come here drive themselves.

“They’re looking for mental and physical stimulation and a place to meet people. So we’re not a senior center, we’re a gathering place,” she says.

Go into a gathering place for seniors these days, and people are just as likely to be doing tai chi as learning to play the piano. Those are two of a wide array of activities offered at the McKenna Center, along with yoga, Zumba Lite, Silver Sneakers, a memoir writing workshop, crafts, cards and other games and seminars on topics of interest to the clientele.

In some sense, the center can stand in for family when children and grandchildren live far away from the older generation, Corsi says.

Graceful aging

Staying active and engaged, even for someone approaching 100, is the mission of the Graceful Aging Wellness Center at the Bethlen Communities in Ligonier Township

There, the focus is on “longevity training,” director Cathy Graham says. “The big difference between us and a typical senior center is that we take a holistic approach to living as we age.”

Longevity training incorporates physical, mental and spiritual principles to help participants remain actively independent for as long as possible, Graham explains.

The program is based on seven dimensions of wellness:

• Live with meaning and purpose

• Engage in fun, laughter-filled activities

• Exercise, sleep properly, pay attention to proper nutrition

• Surround yourself with things you love

• Keep your skills sharp

• Feel happy, fulfilled and peaceful

• Do creative and intellectually stimulating activities

The center helps members put that into practice, Graham says, via individual and group exercise opportunities and monthly lectures on “things of interest to our demographic.”

Being able to move with relative ease is a major component of continuing to live independently and to enjoy life.

“Coming here gets me up and going,” said member Nancy Pratt of Ligonier Township after a recent Zumba Gold session. “I’ve lost my husband and two grandchildren -- this gets me up, so I don’t lie in bed and feel sorry for myself.”

‘Don’t count bingo out’

“In being mindful of the diverse age population we serve ranging in age from 50 to 90-plus, our staff, with guidance from the Westmoreland County Area Agency on Aging, determined that in order to attract the younger, older adults to our centers, modern programming was needed,” says Bonnie Dudek, executive director of the Alle-Kiski Valley Senior Citizens Center Inc., which has locations in Avonmore, East Vandergrift and New Kensington.

Ironically, the vintage craft of crocheting has turned out to be popular with the younger-older set, she says.

Brain games, adult coloring book sessions and line dancing are other favorites, says Tara Kazmer, supervisor of the New Kensington center.

Line dancing even helps center members keep current with another aspect of modern life: “They enjoy the new music -- rock, country, anything other than hip hop,” Kazmer says.

Still, it’s not necessary -- or even wise -- to get rid of all the traditional “senior center” trappings, Dudek says.

“Don’t count bingo out yet,” she says. “This activity remains popular at all of our centers, with our New Kensington center attracting an average of 45-50 players on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m.”

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