Did you know that your local Council on Aging is part of a Federal program to provide important services to those 60 and older in your community?
Did you know that over 80% of the users of Senior Centers are women, and in many communities, it’s 90% or more?
Women who use the Senior Center love it. There is a beehive of activity when you walk into your local Center, and the women (and a few men) who make it part of their daily lives are happy, chatty, and fully engaged in all kinds of activities. They are part of a community where their needs and interests are very well-served. And, the women who run these Centers are dynamic, well-versed in the needs of their communities, and totally committed to helping their members age gracefully and well.
For the September 15th edition of Retirement Weekly, a MarketWatch premium newsletter published by Dow Jones & Co., I talked with several folks about Senior Centers and what’s happening today. The directors of two Massachusetts Councils on Aging were incredibly helpful in sharing with me the needs of their community, what they are doing differently today, and how their role in the community has been changing to help not only older folks, but those in their 40s and 50s who are dealing with aging parents.
You can read the full article (below) as it appeared in the September 15, 2017 edition, or you can link directly to the Retirement Weekly article online. Retirement Weekly is a subscription-based newsletter, chocked full of terrific, timely retirement information, in-depth discussions about retirement rules, and coverage of current topics impacting your retirement savings and plans. There is something for everyone and at every stage in the retirement cycle. You can find the free-trial and subscription information here.
Take a read and do let me know what you think!
(Reprinted with permission from Retirement Weekly ©2017)
The Best Kept Secret in Town: Your Local Council on Aging (aka Senior Centers)
80% of Users are Retired Women
By Marcia Mantell, September 2017
Off the beaten path and often in nondescript buildings that have seen better days, Councils on Aging can be found in most local communities. But, in many cases, you’ve really got to look to know they are there. There are some 11,400 Senior Centers across America, some in every state. They provide services to over one million citizens ages 60 and older.
Most know them as “Senior Centers”. They provide rides for seniors in mobility vans, deliver meals to those who can’t get out easily, offer snacks or lunches while hosting activities during the day. Yet they offer so much more. Their mission is to provide a wide-range of services and a place for usually retired citizens 60 and older to remain socially active and participating in their community. Overwhelmingly, retired women are the ones taking advantage of the Centers. In most Centers, 80 to 90 percent of the users are women. But, overall participation among retired folks is low. Increasing participation is a key objective of these Centers.
Biggest Obstacle: “I’m Not Old”
Dorothy Dwyer is an engaging woman who fully embraces her local Senior Center in Norwell, Massachusetts. Mrs. Dwyer just celebrated a birthday in July. She looks maybe 75. In reality, she’s 89. She is active and has a full agenda of places to go and people to see.
“I love my Council on Aging!” says Mrs. Dwyer. “I go all the time. I didn’t want to go at first, since I knew everyone there was old. But a friend of mine at church invited me to come, so I decided to give it a try. It was great and the people are wonderful. I take some of the classes like quilting and love the activities and field trips. Lunch is prepared on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I serve on Thursdays.”
Mrs. Dwyer hits the nail on the head as to why Senior Centers aren’t a brighter spot in every community. The biggest obstacle to getting people to come to the Senior Centers is perception. Judy Luciano, executive director at the Wakefield, Massachusetts Senior Center, explains that this new generation of aging Americans (the Baby Boomers) do not see themselves as old and don’t want to hang around old folks. “This misperception about being old is our biggest obstacle to increasing our attendance,” Luciano says. “And, it’s really too bad since these experience people have so much to offer, especially to the younger generation. They just don’t want to be labeled as ‘old’.” Anyone 60 and older can join their senior center for free and it is a central place in a community to make new friends, volunteer and mentor, and perhaps most important, avoid being isolated.
Another Challenge: Finding Councils on Aging
In most of the small towns along the south shore of Massachusetts you can find a Council on Aging, if you know to look for them. The one in Hanover is newly built and beautifully landscaped. It’s out of the way in a quiet part of town, up a hill, and completely hidden from the road. But, it is bustling with activities and a new model of services in the planning stage. New director, Tammy Murray, is full of ideas and clearly on a mission to make sure this Council on Aging is not a secret any more.
The town has nearly 15,000 residents with roughly 15% ages 50 to 64, and another 10% in the 65 and older group. A key challenge is getting the word out about the valuable services the Center provides. In a day and age when there are many different channels to receive information, how does a Council on Aging reach 3,500 people over the age of 60 and another 3,500 in the 50 to 60 age group? Murray acknowledges the challenge, but comes to Hanover with years of public relations experience.
“I’m active in local PR. I make sure to get to know the people who run the local TV cable network, the radio shows, and the town newspapers,” Murry explains. “I also know that I can’t reach everyone through those traditional channels, so I’ll be increasing use of Facebook, the area’s senior news inserts, improving our website, and updating our database so I can send more newsletters directly to households. We also have a calendar of events online, but, you’d have to know that we exist and proactively check out the calendar.” Some of the outreach changes are already evident in the Hanover area.
Overcoming the Obstacles: Expanding Their Purpose
Getting the word out is particularly important to Murray, especially as the role of the Council on Aging is changing and expanding. “Everyone knows a senior. So, in addition to serving our seniors, we now need to expand to get information out to the Baby Boomers and younger families,” Murray adds. She recognizes that many are juggling work, children, and aging parents or older family members. They are still working full-time so they can save more for retirement and to fund college for their kids. Figuring out what to do with a retired, and often bored, family member during the day is simply not an option.
Many aging family members are not in need of traditional caregiving; they aren’t sick or recovering from an illness. Rather, they are healthy and able, but need more to do in a safe and friendly environment. They are smart, interesting and have a lot to offer. Luciano of Wakefield says, “Many in our community are retired engineers, school teachers and veterans. They make wonderful tutors in math, science and so many other courses for kids in every grade.”
The local Council on Aging can be a tremendous resource for families. “Even my mother didn’t want to come to the Council, but I have to work and she was bored,” shares Murray. “So, I suggested that she come in to teach knitting once a week.” It didn’t take long for Murray’s 70-something year old mom to embrace her new community and become a regular at her Council on Aging.
Ideas for addressing the low visibility problem and needing to build awareness came from one of the volunteers at Murray’s previous Senior Center. A 77-year-old volunteer knew they needed to build more community awareness. She had spent her career working in communications and marketing, so she offered to make the calls and network with the local media outlets. Before long, there was a rolodex of names and numbers and people in the community interested in hearing what’s going on at the senior center.
One of the important roles the Council on Aging plays is to leverage the experiences and expertise of the people using the facility. It’s a win-win for the Center and for all members who are still sharp, active, and more than willing to make a contribution.
Senior Loneliness Is Becoming an Epidemic for Women
The time for Senior Centers to become a breakout star in their communities is needed now more than ever. Murray is clearly on to something here as she helps the Hanover Council on Aging reinvent itself to better serve an aging population and the adult children who need to be part of the solution.
One of the most important roles the Council on Aging can play is in combating senior loneliness. Whether you live alone or with a spouse or partner, an alarming number of retirees report feeling lonely. In fact, many at the forefront of addressing aging issues in America say senior loneliness is becoming “an epidemic” in our otherwise prosperous nation. The numbers are stunning (from the Institute on Aging):
- Of the older adults who were living outside nursing homes or hospitals in 2010, nearly one third (11.3 million) lived alone.
- Older women are twice as likely as older men to live alone (37 percent and 19 percent, respectively). In 2010, 72 percent of older men lived with a spouse, only 42 percent of older women did.
- The likelihood of living alone increases with age. Among women age 75+, almost half (47 percent) lived alone in 2010.
Many women who routinely come to the Council on Aging are hesitant at first, but then thrive in the social environment. The Hanover Center is set up to feel like someone’s home. There are wing-back chairs and couches along with tables filled with books, magazines and daily newspapers. The coffee is always hot. Sometimes, especially when women are feeling particularly lonely, they’ll come into the center with their own book, sit down in the “living room” with a cup of coffee and read for a few hours. Others come for the activities. In Hanover, their list of activities (from their website) includes: Bowling , Ladies Morning Out Group, Cribbage, Bridge & Mah Jong, Movies, Watercolor Painting , Book Clubs, Bingo, Bereavement Support, Arthritis Exercise classes, Strength Training, Stretch & Relax, Yoga, Zumba and Tai Chi. In Wakefield, exercise classes are also popular, and they also offer woodcarving and a variety of art classes as well as computer, iPad and Smartphone help. Each Center tailors its activities to the needs and wants of their community.
A group of ladies, all in their 70s, were leaving the Hanover Council on Aging late in the afternoon. They were wearing modern yoga clothes, carrying yoga mats, and sporting wide-brimmed hats and fashionable sunglasses. They were chatting and laughing like schoolgirls. Clearly, they had just come from yoga class. Yes, they love it. Yes, they come to the Center all the time. One woman had a big smile and commented, “We are so lucky to have this center. There is so much for us to do and we just love it here.”
Creative Approaches for Expansion
Mrs. Dwyer is pleased that a new activities director is bringing new and fresh ideas to the community, “She has already arranged for us to visit several of the local ice cream stands and dairies. And the police came last week to host a barbeque and cook for us. One of the policemen has a beautiful voice and added entertainment to the afternoon. It was great fun, and I won the 50/50 raffle!”
Murray believes one of the biggest opportunities to addressing senior loneliness is to provide more intergenerational opportunities at the centers. She’s planning to leverage grandparent’s day, an under-supported day on the calendar that has a lot of potential. Reaching out more to the younger households who may be dealing with an aging parent is also a focus in Hanover. The Center has much to offer and can take a burden off stressed 40-and 50-year-old households with aging relatives. And, Luciano is promoting intergenerational events such as “movie night” for grandparents and their grandkids. Both Centers are partnering with their local libraries, offering informational sessions and cross-promotion of upcoming events and activities.
While the Councils on Aging have clearly been embraced by retired women, they are not meant to be exclusive clubs for the ladies. Murry and Luciano continually look for new ways to reach men and bring them in for events or volunteering activities that they like. Informational events are popular among both men and women. There are sizeable audiences for topics such as: smart downsizing, retirement planning, Social Security and Medicare planning, safety and scams, protecting against fraud, and others. The guys also enjoy trips to the casinos to try their hand at the craps table!
September is Senior Center Month
The Older Americans Act was signed into law in 1965 by President Johnson. A key piece of this legislation was to fund senior centers which would be primary organizations for providing seniors with resources they need. The National Council on Aging later formed the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) to support the growth of these important community resources.
In 1985, President Reagan signed a presidential proclamation creating a Senior Center week. In 2007, the NISC designated September as “Senior Center Month.” It is time to build more awareness and invite more members of the community to visit before winter descends upon us. Short days and tough weather keeps much of the country indoors in isolating circumstances.
Murray’s and Luciano’s outreach efforts are coming at a critical time. Eleven million seniors are living alone. The Councils on Aging across the nation are serving but one million. If ever there was a cry for help, this is it: expand the role of the Councils on Aging in every community. Let’s celebrate our retired citizens and help them stay active, involved, and participating in many ways throughout their communities.
Addition Resources about Councils on Aging:
National Council on Aging: https://www.ncoa.org/
Facts and Benefits of Senior Centers You Probably Didn’t Know: link here for article
To find the senior center in your area, google “where to find my local senior center” or call your local Town Hall (usually the Town Clerk can provide you with information about your city or town’s support for the elderly)