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Senior Centers: A Range of Opportunities

Did you know that senior centers offer much more than a hot meal and bingo?

"Today's senior centers are changing, and many place a strong emphasis on healthy aging and lifelong learning," says Constance Todd, director of civic engagement for the National Council on the Aging.

Senior centers enrich the lives of older adults with a range of opportunities for socialization, learning, travel, volunteerism, and physical and mental challenges. So why haven't you visited one yet?

"People avoid senior centers for many reasons," says Jacqui Makowski, director of outreach for the Philadelphia Senior Center. "They say they don't need one or they don't know anyone there or it's for 'old people.'"

Helping you thrive

Some older adults don't know they fall into the age range for a senior center. Most centers set a minimum age of 55 to 60.

"People may just not perceive themselves as eligible for a senior center," says Todd. "But ironically, participating in activities at a center can actually help an older person remain youthful."

Makowski agrees. "You can really thrive at a senior center. It can open up a completely new chapter in your life. So by all means, give it a chance," she says.

For example, the Philadelphia Senior Center has an average of 12 activities from which to choose on any given day. They include fabric painting, book club, Broadway outings, dining at area restaurants, electronic darts, men's group, movies, ballroom dancing, chorus, yoga, and walking club.

Many senior centers also provide health information and screenings, social services and volunteer opportunities, such as partnerships with local schools.

Calling all ages

Today's senior centers try to provide programs for older adults of all ages.

For example, some younger seniors exercise at a senior center in the morning on their way to work. Other seniors join one center for companionship five days a week. Some belong to two or three centers. Others join a center simply to take advantage of the travel opportunities. Just pick and choose "according to what's best for you and your schedule," says Makowski.

Joining a center

It's easy to join your local senior center. You could start by setting up a tour of the facility. It's best to call ahead. You also can drop by a senior center for information about its services. Bring a friend or a family member if you feel more at ease.

Most memberships range from no cost to a small annual fee. You might also pay a modest charge for some classes and a donation (usually about a dollar or two) for a meal.

If you need some spark in your life, give senior centers a try. You may be surprised at what you find.

"I know of a 70-something woman who was very quiet and apprehensive about joining our senior center," says Makowski. "We introduced her to some people and before we knew it, she became very involved in several activities. And then she joined our advisory council and eventually started to attend exercise classes and go on trips. Now she pals around with a group of people at the center and takes new members under her wing."

If you visit a senior center and it doesn't quite suit you, try another. Each center is different and offers its own unique programs, depending on its members' input and interests.

Find a senior center that "fits" and you could flourish in many different ways.

"The best way to keep sharp is to exercise your mind," says Todd. "Senior centers are a great place for older adults to participate in intellectual aerobics as well as physical activities."