Why We Need To Get Rid Of Senior Centers

Where grown-ups keep growing 

Kerry HannonKerry Hannon, Contributor

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?”

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 Excellencewas 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 centersoften 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.

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 will 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 will 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-Fangled 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.

Kerry Hannon is a contributor to Next Avenue and has spent more than 25 years covering personal finance for Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

Day-Care Programs Group Toddlers With the Elderly

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 7.51.49 AM* please note, this was written in 2003, and we still don’t have one here.

Toddlers bop to surf music from a boom box, while a dozen senior citizens sit uneasily nearby — some dozing, others disinterested, and a few downright cranky.

But within five minutes, things start to change. Tito, a 95-year-old former truck driver with a hearing aid, smiles and bobs his head from side to side as a toddler stops by his chair to boogie. Rosie, a former nurse and teacher who can barely see, gets up to dance. And Bill, a 66-year-old retiree with Parkinson’s disease, bounces a little girl on his lap. By the end of the session, at the Mount Kisco Day Care Center in Westchester County, N.Y., it is hard to recognize the grumpy elders of a half-hour ago.

The two groups, at extremes of the aging spectrum, are at the forefront of a movement that is transforming elderly-care facilities and day-care centers alike. “Intergenerational” is becoming the new buzzword in the business of caring for both the very young and very old, as programs around the country join small children with elderly people who might otherwise be cooped up in retirement homes or living alone. The goal is to help the two age groups relate better — and in doing so, improve the energy and psychological outlook of elderly people as well as the social skills and confidence of pre-schoolers.

Though there have been experiments with the concept for years, it has only recently taken off. The number of facilities with joint care programs for the elderly and small children has grown by one-third, to close to 1,000 in the past five years, according to an estimate by Generations United, a Washington-based group that promotes intergenerational programs and policies.



And more are being started all the time. The Giles Health & Family Center, a day-care center for aging adults in Pearisburg, Va., is opening a children’s component by the end of this month. In July, the Macklin Intergenerational Institute in Findlay, Ohio, opened its doors. At the 189,000-square-foot “village,” the children often refer to the seniors as their “Grandmas” and “Grandpas.”

Experts say the programs encourage the kinds of relationships between young and old that once came naturally. In recent decades, the gap between generations has widened, with families becoming more spread out and elderly people fleeing for sunny retirement communities. Increasingly, older adults “may not be hearing a kid laughing or asked to change a diaper,” says Matthew Kaplan, a professor at Penn State University. Other proponents add that the concept offers communities a much more cost-effective way of providing care because resources and staff are shared.

Still, there are some concerns about regularly mixing the two groups, including worries that perpetually sniffling toddlers will pass germs to the vulnerable elderly. And questions linger over whether seriously ailing seniors — for example, those with advanced stages of dementia — are really the best thing for very small children.

Nevertheless, some studies suggest that being part of children’s lives can increase senior citizens’ sense of purpose and can lead to a healthier old age. One recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that senior citizens who volunteered in the Baltimore public schools reported increased strength, as well as better walking ability and fewer falls.

Another study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias observed 48 older adults over the course of a week at an intergenerational site. Researchers took note of the apparent mood and behavior of the subjects, coding it every five minutes. Results showed that the participants’ general well-being was significantly better when they interacted with children than when they did not.

Thrilled to be Called ‘Grandma’

Don Moses knows all this firsthand. After his 82-year-old aunt moved in with him in Arcadia, Ohio, her increasing forgetfulness and boredom soon became more than he could handle. Last year, he enrolled her at a nearby adult day-care center that had a joint program with children, and her whole outlook changed after just the first day, he says. She became more enthusiastic, and in particular looked forward to seeing the children. “That’s all she talks about when she comes home — the kids she saw today,” says Mr. Moses, who recalls how thrilled she became when one child called her “Grandma.”

Such interactions can help children as well. One study of 200 preschool children in Northwest Ohio sought to compare the social skills of pre-schoolers in an intergenerational program with those in regular day care. Overall, those in the intergenerational program scored higher in social development. In particular, they scored much higher in social manners — saying “please” and “thank you.”

Holding Hands

Holly Berger, whose four-year-old daughter, Maisy, has attended intergenerational day care since she was six months old, believes that her daughter’s daily exposure to the “neighbors” at the ONEgeneration Daycare center in Van Nuys, Calif., has contributed to her heightened social awareness and outgoing nature. Maisy often reaches out to elderly people in the street or in grocery stores, either to engage them in chitchat or just simply to hold their hand.

“She has no concept of that being strange or scary,” says Ms. Berger.

People in the field stress that the focus of intergenerational activity should always be more on the interaction — how well young and old relate — rather than the actual activity, whether it is bowling or baking cupcakes. At the day-care center in Mount Kisco, September’s “Intergenerational Activity Calendar” lists at least a couple of shared activities a day, such as making “jazzy jewelry,” “bowling for dollars,” and “glue the apples.”

But much of the interaction is casual. One recent day, 86-year-old Lucy Todisco, sits with a two-year-old boy named William, who is two-fisting crayons. “Who are you going to draw — me or you?” she asks. Farther back in the playroom, Karl Essell, 73, reads “My Five Senses” to two-and-a-half-year-old Elena. “I hear with my ears…” he reads, then asks her: “Where are your ears?” Elena dutifully points to the sides of her head. “Oh, that’s excellent!” Mr. Essell replies.

The room has few of the bright, primary colors that are common at many day-care centers. They could be jarring to the elderly. The colors in the Mount Kisco center are more neutral, and the atmosphere is cozy and plush, with a sort of family-room feel. The seniors reside at one end while the children are on the other end. They meet periodically throughout the day, either in playrooms or in an outdoor patio.

Finding a Program

People interested in intergenerational programs can check Generations United’s online database of more than 500 such programs at www.gu.org. (Click on “intergenerational.”) People in the field say good programs should encourage spontaneous and planned interactions. Most important, staff should be trained in caring for both children and for the elderly, so that they are well-prepared for the unexpected. Centers typically have an “intergenerational coordinator” trained in caring for both small children and the elderly, whose job is to talk to staffs on both sides regularly and plan out mutually beneficial activities.

It is also critical to make sure one age group isn’t treated as there simply for the purpose of the other. “We have to remember that the other side of the equation is equally important,” says Elizabeth Larkin, who researches intergenerational care at the University of South Florida at Sarasota-Manatee. She believes it is imperative to have dual-trained workers so that both young and old feel understood. “It’s not a quality program if it’s not mutually beneficial.”

Write to Anne Marie Chaker at anne-marie.chaker@wsj.co

Let’s Make the Most of the Intergenerational Opportunity

When older people contribute to the well-being of youth, the engagement elevates both



Marc Freedman
Encore.org CEO Marc Freedman

For many years, pundits have predicted a coming generational war, a looming conflict between young and old driven by a great gray wave of greedy geezers who are intent on shoring up their own positions at the expense of helpless younger generations. This media trope has fueled countless articles about a cataclysmic battle pitting “kids vs. canes.”

In fact within families at least, interdependence among generations has rarely been stronger. Recent Pew Research polling found “no indication” of brewing strife between young and old. To the contrary, the Pew researchers concluded that “generational conflict ranks at the bottom of a list of potential group conflicts in the U.S.” That’s no surprise when we’re witnessing a dramatic increase in the number of 20- to 34-year-olds who share a home with their parents and with grandparents contributing in myriad ways to the lives of their children — and their children’s children.

A Realization From the Passage of Time

Indeed, the framework of inter-generational war runs against the grain of human nature. Erik Erikson, the pioneering scholar of human development, argued that older generations’ impulse to invest in younger ones is a hallmark of successful development. This drive is all the more pronounced as we reach a point in life when there are fewer years ahead of us than behind us. The passage of time brings us inescapably to the realization that humans are designed to pass the torch from generation to generation.

The imperative is making the most of the intergenerational opportunity ahead, through harnessing the natural affinity between young and old.

Erikson called this impulse generativity, encapsulated in his phrase “I am what survives of me.” Harvard Medical School professor George Vaillant, another expert in midlife development, states the concept even more fundamentally: “Biology flows downhill.”

In short, we’ve gotten the generational issue exactly wrong.

Narrowing the Opportunity Gap

The real imperative is not averting generational conflagration. Rather, it is making the most of the intergenerational opportunity ahead, through harnessing the natural affinity between young and old, particularly in ways that can narrow the opportunity gap facing so many young people.

Scholars who study the obstacles confronting young people argue that one of the most important ingredients of their future success — especially for those growing up in low-income environments — is the steady presence of caring adults with the time and inclination to support their development.

If one were to place a help-wanted ad for just such a human resource —for those who could provide the caring and connection so many young people need to learn and to thrive — the appeal would describe today’s (and tomorrow’s) older population: vast and growing, with deep-rooted generative impulses, the chance to gain greatly in health and well-being through engaging with youth, and possessed of the abundant relationship skills essential to the transmission of social capital.

On this last point, Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen has shown that the emphasis on relationships and the very skills needed to nurture and develop close bonds grow stronger as we age.

An Urgent Need

The challenge, of course, is to transform this potential into practice, and most important, to do so in ways that extend generativity beyond families and into communities, building on the familial resilience uncovered by the Pew studies in ways that bridge age, class and race. As developed countries increasingly consist of larger older populations and smaller younger ones, this objective could not be more urgent.

Put differently it’s not enough for biology to flow downhill — society must do so as well to reap the benefits of intersecting longevity and demographic transformations. To that end, it is time for a call to action, urging the over-50 population to come forward, stand up and show up for kids, not only their own kids and grandkids but all “our grandkids.”

The ‘Generativity Revolution’

And that call must be met with an expansion of opportunity and innovation — from service efforts through second acts focused on education and related work — that can transform the desire to leave the world a better place into concrete action capable of achieving what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls the “generativity revolution.”

A revolution it is, but one that restores the natural order of things.

Fifty years ago, we rerouted the river of live, often stymieing the opportunity for older and younger people to connect, segregating the gray-haired set into leisure villages and other age-bounded settings while telling them to cling to their fast-fading youth. Now is the time to return that river of life to its natural course.

Instead of urging the graying population to aspire to an endless youth, let’s encourage them to accept their age and embrace the spirit of purpose and legacy. They should aspire not to be kids, but rather to be there for those who actually are, for the youngsters who embody the future and are in need of our support.

Benefits, benefits, benefits…….


45% of Americans working in retirement say they want to work with youth

Older adults learn new innovations and technologies from their younger counterparts

Older adults who regularly volunteer with children burn 20% more calories per week, experienced fewer falls, were less reliant on canes, and performed better on memory tests than their peers.

Older adults with dementia and other cognitive impairments experience more positive effects during interactions with children than they did during non-generational activities.



In schools where older adults were a regular fixture, children had more improved reading scorescompared to their peers at other schools.

Interacting with older adults enables youth to develop social networks, communication skills, problem-solving abilities, positive attitudes toward aging, a sense of purpose and community service.

Youth involved in intergenerational mentoring programs are 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27% less likely to begin using alcohol, and 52% less likely to skip school.

Children and youth gain positive role models with whom they can interact on a regular basis.



Intergenerational programs bring together diverse groups and networks and help dispel innacurate and negative stereotypes.

Children, youth, and older adults are less alienated while the community recognizes that they can be contributing members of society.

Intergenerational community service programs can multiply human resources by engaging older adults and youth as volunteers in different types of opportunities and populations.

Intergenerational programs promote the transmission of cultural traditions and values from older to younger generations, helping to build a sense of personal and societal identity while encouraging tolerance.

What Are Intergenerational Programs?

Intergenerational Programs are social vehicles that offer younger and older generations the opportunities to interact and become engaged in issuesconcerningoursociety. These programs purposefully bring together people of different generations in ongoing, mutually beneficial, planned activities, designed to achieve specified program goals. Through intergenerational programs people of all ages share their talents and resources, supporting each other in relationships that benefit both the individuals and the community. Successful program are based on reciprocity, are sustained and intentional, and involve education and preparation for all ages. Young and old are viewed as assets not problems to be solved.

Working to be a better place to grow older


July 21, 2016 11:04 AM
By Kerry Hannon / The New York Times

Martha Baron likes to play in the dirt. And for the 79-year-old resident of Washington, D.C., all that takes is a walk about a half a block from her condominium to the Newark Street Community Garden.

Three times a week during the growing season, Ms. Baron visits her two organic garden plots, where she tends to gladiolas, peonies, zinnias, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini and a lot of basil.

“It’s a wonderful place to meet others of all ages from all different walks of life with similar interests, and it gives me a purpose,” said Ms. Baron.

Such opportunities are helping make Washington an ideal place to grow older. Ten years ago, after her husband died, Ms. Baron moved to the city from Long Island to be near her grown children and grandchildren. But it was a rough adjustment. “I found it very difficult, as an older adult and a single woman not interested in dating, to make friends,” she recalled.

In the last five years, that’s changed. She joined the garden and also became a member of Cleveland & Woodley Park Village, an organization of volunteers that provides services like shopping trips and transportation to doctor appointments and plans social outings for older adults.

Like Ms. Baron, 87 percent of adults 65 and older want to stay in their own home and community as they age, according to an AARP report. By 2050, the 65 and over population is projected to reach 83.7 million, almost double the roughly 43.1 million in 2012, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Those statistics are well known across the nation as cities grapple with the needs of older adults. The nonprofit Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Living report found several cities to be ahead of the curve, including smaller cities like Iowa City and Sioux Falls, S.D., and larger ones like Boston and New York.

One contributor to the successes in Washington is the growth of villages like the one Ms. Baron joined for $500 a year. Her nonprofit village has 100 members, aged 57 to 95, and 160 volunteers. It’s one of 15 villages across the district and more than 50 across the Washington metro area.

The Age-Friendly DC Initiative is part of an international effort. In 2012, it was initiated by then-Mayor Vincent Gray with encouragement from AARP-DC and local faith leaders. It was selected by the World Health Organization Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities to be part of an effort it started in 2007 to connect cities that serve an aging population.

The World Health Organization recommends a rigorous five-year process in which city leaders, businesses and government agencies focus on improving the elements that affect the quality of life of residents as they grow older.

“Qualities of livable cities for older citizens, also referred to as ‘aging in place,’ include a variety of accessible and affordable housing options in safe and walkable neighborhoods with plenty of options for getting around — walking, biking, carts, public transit, ride-sharing and shared or owned vehicles,” said Joel Makower, co-author of “The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century.”

“Obviously, health care and other supportive services are essential, along with access to healthy food and other retail.”

But it goes deeper. “One often-overlooked quality is what some experts call ‘social integration’ — the existence of activities and events geared not just to older people, but to intergenerational experiences,” said Mr. Makower. “I don’t think most cities have a good understanding of what it takes to ensure that older citizens can participate in the life of a community.”

Paul Irving, chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute and distinguished scholar in residence at the Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, agreed. “Age is typically not on the agenda for city and county executives,” he said. “This is a huge issue for cities. What kinds of homes do we need, what kinds of transportation/transit, what kinds of economic development, health system? It’s building cities for generations to come, not just boomers.”

For pilot cities like Washington, the World Health Organization identified several aspects of urban communities that influence the health and quality of life of older people living there. They include outdoor spaces, transportation, affordable housing, the opportunity for social and civic participation, communication, community support and health services. After listening to residents, the district added aspects of its own, including elder abuse and fraud and emergency preparedness. Within those areas were categories like safety, community amenities and services.

The safety category, for example, includes the number of police officers in an area and whether there are broken sidewalks, unoccupied storefronts and public restrooms. Community amenities include grocery stores, banks, senior centers and parks. The services category focuses on places like hospitals, drugstores and libraries.

“These are strategies that are not only beneficial for our older residents, but for us all — and they are absolutely achievable,” the current mayor, Muriel Bowser, wrote in a 2015 report on Washington’s initiative.

As part of the Age-Friendly Cities program, Washington has worked to increase access to and usage of parks, open spaces and public buildings, and has increased the number of parks and public spaces that are equipped with seating, drinking fountains and restrooms.

There has also been a focus on new park programs aimed at residents 50 and older, such as neighborhood walks, tai chi in the park and more community gardens.

One effort is the East Capitol Urban Farm, a planned transformation of a vacant three-acre plot in Ward 7 into a new urban farm. Partners include the University of the District of Columbia and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Another program, Safe at Home, provides grants of up to $10,000 to residents to make small home modifications, such as adding an elevator with a chair to a staircase or modifying a bathroom with a grab bar.

Transportation is also crucial and it’s not just public transportation, said Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, who previously directed the Age-Friendly New York City Initiative. “Walking is transportation, and the ability to walk safely in your neighborhood is essential. It is a wonderful physical activity, and it is also good from a cognitive health point of view and from a social engagement point of view.”

“You also need safe and plentiful public space, and businesses that are what we call third places — where you habitually go and feel comfortable, such as the coffee shop, a community center, the Y or the gym — need to be in place and vibrant,” said Ms. Finkelstein.

Another element of the Age-Friendly DC plan is a wider range of affordable housing options for older residents.

Genesis, a Generations of Hope residence, for example, is a 27-unit affordable community that brings together residents 60 and older with young families and single mothers transitioning from the district’s foster care system. Older residents commit to sharing their skills and wisdom with younger families. All adult residents are required to complete service hours each quarter to support the community.

In the Mount Vernon Triangle section of the city, plans call for a 12-story affordable-housing development that will be the first of its kind in the city — and one of only a handful in the nation. It will offer subsidized housing and services for grandparents raising grandchildren. Fifty of the 223 apartments for low-income residents will be set aside for such “grandfamilies.”

“I admire what they are doing in Washington, D.C.,” said Ms. Finkelstein. “It’s quite elegantly done. This is not a one-generation issue, but a quintessentially intergenerational issue.”

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