Blog Post

Today’s senior community centers promote healthy living, active aging

Todays-Senior-Centers

By Marcia Z. Siegal

With sophisticated fitness centers and wellness programs, computer and Zumba classes, intergenerational collaborations, and a focus on active living, today’s senior community centers are a far cry from the centers previous generations were accustomed to.

National Senior Center Month, observed in September, provides an opportunity to celebrate the vibrant programming featured at senior centers supported by Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), which is engaging members ranging from baby boomers to centenarians.

With sophisticated fitness centers and wellness programs, computer and Zumba classes, intergenerational collaborations, and a focus on active living, today’s senior community centers are a far cry from the centers previous generations were accustomed to.

National Senior Center Month, observed in September, provides an opportunity to celebrate the vibrant programming featured at senior centers supported by Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), which is engaging members ranging from baby boomers to centenarians.

Computer savvy – and safe

Computer class teacher Kwaku Boateng strides into the back room at Lutheran Settlement House (LSH) Senior Center, 1340 Frankford Ave. in North Central Philadelphia, where students await the weekly class with anticipation.

“Get ready for a lot of laughs,” said student Teresa Shank. “We always have fun here.” The 59-year-old has learned to use email, do internet searches, play computer games, share photos electronically, and create a Facebook account to share posts with family and friends. Boateng begins by warning his students about spam, or unsolicited email that may contain dangerous links. “When you go in your email, make sure you clean up your inbox,” he said to his students. “We all know what spam is. It’s not meat that comes in a blue can. I’m talking about bad email. Delete it. Don’t open it.”

Next, students learn how to use the calendar application to create, edit and delete appointments and events. In subsequent lessons, Boateng promised, they would learn how to use their smartphones (mobile phones that have multiple functions similar to those of a desktop or laptop computer). “I have a passion for teaching seniors,” he said. “They are so eager to learn.”

Nutrition and health

A nutritious lunch has been a core program of senior centers since their inception. At LSH senior center, located in the city’s Fishtown section, nutrition is especially important. The center’s Hungry 2 Healthy program includes a food pantry with nonperishable items; biweekly distribution of fresh produce and other perishable items from Philabundance; monthly distribution of the Share Food Program’s food boxes for seniors; and nutrition presentations, healthy cooking demonstrations and personalized nutritional consultations by nutrition specialist Candice Li. The center’s nearby urban garden yields fresh fruits and vegetables for members’ home use.

In addition, nurse Ayesha Pride is at LSH senior center four days a week to consult with individuals on health issues and provide informational sessions for members on topics such as heart health and diabetes. Pride also is alert to issues that may lurk below the surface. For example, one member came to her because she was having trouble managing her medications. Eventually, Pride was able to elicit the fact that the woman had never learned to read and could not understand the directions on her medicine bottles. “I worked with the counselor here to connect her to a literacy tutor,” the nurse said. “An important aspect of my job is to build trust.”

Center Director Meg Finley said services like Pride’s are highly beneficial to members. “Our goal is to help people thrive in the community,” she said.

An array of arts

Located at 509 S. Broad St. near many of the city’s performance venues, Philadelphia Senior Center – Avenue of the Arts (PSC – Arts) is well-known for its array of creative activities. Among them are stained glass, painting, jewelry-making and tap-dancing classes; the “Best Day of My Life So Far” storytelling and writing group; a robust chorus; and an intergenerational drama class. The latter draws students from the World Communications Charter School across the street to write and act in plays with the seniors under the direction of instructor Denise Worthman. On occasion, performances of the finished plays have been staged at professional theaters on the Avenue of the Arts.

Through a merger two years ago, the center became home to the PSC – Arts Branch of the Asian Pacific Resource Center (formerly the PSC – Coffee Cup Branch on S. 10th Street). That merger further broadened PSC – Arts’ cultural diversity, since more Chinese- and other Asian-born seniors now come to the 509 S. Broad St. site. It also resulted in a new arts class there: Chinese calligraphy. Asian Pacific Resource Center member Xiang Jin, renowned for his expertise in this ancient art, volunteers to teach the class.

“Everywhere you go, members are volunteering to teach at the center,” said PSC – Arts manager Julie Nelson. “We couldn’t afford to offer as many activities as we do without our volunteers.”
Luvenia Black, 96, leads “mind aerobics” sessions, among her other volunteer activities. Senior centers increasingly emphasize both physical and brain fitness as crucial aspects to aging well. Mind aerobics challenges and “exercises” the brain. “I give people things to read and ask questions about. We do puzzles and play brain games,” Black explained.

Black says she’s proof that mind aerobics and the other PSC – Arts activities she enjoys help her to maximize her strengths. “I just had my medical check-up, and it went well,” she said. “My doctor told me, Whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it.’

Fitness and fun

“Once people get through the door and see the kind of activities we’re having, the myths about senior centers fall away,” said Julia Diggs, program manager at West Philadelphia Senior Community Center (WPSCC), 1016 N. 41st St. “They can go to our state-of-the-art fitness center and work with a personal trainer, enjoy parties and computer classes, create art and go on trips. Last December, we took four buses to the African-American Museum in Washington, D.C. Forty-three members have signed up for a trip to Hawaii … We’re always thinking of creative things to do.”

In addition to its regular weekday hours, the center is open Saturday mornings for computer and exercise classes and Wednesday evenings for line dancing from September through May. Being flexible in meeting the needs of today’s seniors is key, says Diggs.

Elaine Gavin, 64, starting coming to WPSCC after she retired last February. “At first, I was so excited about retiring. Then I began to get bored,” she said. “Someone suggested that I go to the West Philadelphia Senior Community Center. This place is excellent. Just sitting home, my joints ached because I wasn’t active. Now I feel stronger – like myself again. I go to tai chi, chair yoga. I’m taking line dancing, Zumba and creative movement classes.

“The fitness center is fantastic. I’ve lost weight since I’ve come here. I try to come Monday through Friday. I think everybody who retires should find a center like this,” Gavin said.

To further promote health, WPSCC sponsors weekly trips year-round to Reading Terminal Market and on-site visits by the neighborhood Budget Grocer to help members access fresh produce. The center also offers a variety of nutrition and health education programs, many in collaboration with local health and pharmaceutical organizations. Among these programs is “Bridging the Gap,” in which medical students spend six weeks participating in center activities alongside members and present health workshops.

Gavin said she often faces a dilemma at WPSCC when multiple programs she likes are offered at the same time. “I have to pick and choose,” she said. “Sometimes I go to part of one activity and then sit in on part of another. One thing, you’re never bored here. There’s always something to do.”

The lively socializing at the center also appeals to Gavin. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have this center to come to and people to interact with,” she said. “I’ve made new friends … and I’ve learned from all of them. I really look forward to coming here. It’s good for me in every way.”

CAPTION: From left, Curtis King, Keith Singleton, Qussie Murphy and Jean Carney lift weights during an exercise class at West Philadelphia Senior Community Center (Photo:Paola Nogueras)