Blog Post

Celebrating senior centers

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September is National Senior Month, highlighting what a valuable resource senior centers are to individual seniors and to the community. That’s certainly true in Philadelphia, where adults 60 or older can find a warm welcome and stay socially connected at senior community centers and satellite meal sites. “Social engagement is so important for each of us as we grow older. Staying active and connecting with others has both cognitive benefits and physical health benefits,” said Mary Catherine Dabrowski, senior center supervisor at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), which funds 28 senior community centers and satellite meal sites in Philadelphia. “Everything you do in a senior community center keeps you active and engaged.”

Senior centers provide vital services, from serving meals to providing help with transportation, along with a range of recreational and education activities. Their group trips and programs, which cater to a variety of interests and hobbies, make senior centers social hubs for older adults. Individual centers’ offerings vary, but many include classes on computer use, art, music, dance and other exercise, along with social, volunteer and cultural activities.

Many senior centers serve as extensions of the neighborhoods where they are located. They are places where seniors can meet and mingle with like-minded cohorts. “Relationships at senior community centers are often built around shared experiences. Friendships of all types form in a senior center,” Dabrowski said.

The stories that follow focus on two PCA-funded senior community centers.

At home in Chinatown

On Lok Social Service Center for Seniors, located at 213 N. 10th St. in the heart of Philadelphia’s Chinatown district, has become a second home for seniors from throughout the city. The center draws on the artistic and cultural interests of Asian seniors, offering programs such as Chinese music, line and social dance; English and Chinese language classes; exercise with a cultural twist, including tai chi and qi qong; and Chinese brushpainting classes. The center also connects seniors with local and citywide resources.

Linkage to vital community resources is especially important for seniors who are low-income or have mobility issues. “The most important general service the center provides is that of language translation between English and Chinese, in both Mandarin and Cantonese,”  said Echo Chung, center director. “The center’s staff, along with some of its members, help seniors apply for various benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and the state property tax/rent rebate. “We help them fill out application forms that are in English or which they may have trouble understanding,” Chung said.

Many of the center’s members emigrated from China and now live in Philadelphia’s diverse Asian neighborhoods, including Chinatown, the Northeast and South Philadelphia. “We all come because we can speak Chinese and feel at home here,” said member Christine Wing” Fung, 73. “When we all retired, we wanted to do something with the community.”

A week at On Lok typically includes computer and iPad classes; karaoke; the singing of Mandarin and Cantonese folk and modern songs; a Chinese culture class on ancient literature; and Mandarin language class.

“To give seniors the ability to live independently and to maximize their health and well-being is our goal. We are the bridge to seniors and the community,” said Chung.

Port Richmond partnership

St. Anne’s Senior Center, located at 2607 E. Cumberland St., has been a fixture in Port Richmond since 1970. After serving the community as a full-service senior community center for 47 years, St. Anne’s became a satellite meal site in July. That means shorter hours and fewer staff members than a full-fledged center.

Nonetheless, the change “doesn’t limit what we can accomplish,” said Karen Rouse, manager for St. Anne’s. “As a satellite, we give members the things they need.” Those things include daily meals, social services (a counselor is on-site three days a week) and transportation. “But beyond that,” she said, “we give them what they want: recreation and socialization.” Ongoing activities at St. Anne’s also include coffee hour, a support group, pottery class and nutritionist/cooking demonstrations.

The site’s longtime partnership with Greensgrow Farm, located across the street, has been going strong for more than 10 years. The center has a small raised-bed garden plot at Greensgrow, where senior volunteers tend and pick herbs and small tomatoes and peppers. The center’s staff coordinates with its gardening volunteers and on-site nutritionist to use freshly grown produce and herbs in cooking demonstrations. During the growing season, Greensgrow brings a farm stand to the center every other Friday so members and others from the community can purchase fresh, locally grown, organic produce.

Another successful community partnership is the annual intergenerational art project involving children ages 8 to 12 who attend the Portside Arts Center Summer Day Camp Program. Seniors volunteer to mentor the children, working closely with them on an art project. Last year, the collaboration produced a mural that now hangs in front of St. Anne’s. This year, participants made a wooden sculpture using popsicle sticks and other objects.

“We’re called a satellite because we’re only open four hours a day, but we’re so much more than a meals program,” Rouse said. “We are doing everything we did before. We haven’t seen a change in consumers. If anything, the interest in our services and programs continues to increase.”

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To locate a center in your neighborhood or for more information about center activities, call the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040 or go to pcaCares.org and click on “Services for Seniors,” then “Senior Centers.”

CAPTION: St. Anne’s Senior Center member Barbara Seuss looks on as student Layla Jama Cohen decorates a wooden mosaic as part of an intergenerational project. (Photo by Paola Nogueras)