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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Senior Centers: Their Relevancy and Impact on the Social Needs of Older Adults

Senior centers offer meaningful activities for a diverse group of seniors, and can be an important element in their lives. Staying relevant to a changing older demographic will be a challenge.

“We do not quit playing because we grow old, we grow old because we quit playing.”
 — Oliver Wendell Holmes

As the baby boom generation ages, the challenges of meeting their needs become more complex not only because of their numbers but also because boomers are a heterogeneous group. 

Senior centers have developed over the past half-century based on different models and different missions. These multipurpose centers have evolved into places where older people can improve or maintain many aspects of life all in one place. They not only offer meaningful activities that promote successful aging for a diverse group of seniors, but also provide an important source of referrals, which keeps them connected to the community. However, this very diversity has also created debate over what functions senior centers best perform. On one hand, they provide services for those in need; on the other hand, they provide recreational activities for people who are healthy and economically self-sufficient (Krout 1989). This has led to the question of which services are most needed and which populations should be the focus of programs and services.

This article offers information about senior center participants and reinforces the important role of senior centers in providing activities that promote successful aging. The findings come from a previous study that examined various aspects of participation in senior centers. Specifically, the study investigated who participates, how different people used the center in various ways, and explored what participants gained from attending. Senior center attendance can be viewed as a continuum, ranging from limited activity to intense involvement (Ferraro and Cobb 1987; Krout 1988), which not only varies across individuals but for a given individual over time. From a multi-method approach—
participant observation, interviews, and surveys—it was found that a senior center can be an effective institution if it creates a unique space and an unordered approach to activities on a continuing basis. This allows different types of seniors to benefit, regardless of their health, economic situation, and level of involvement.

The Belongingness Hypothesis and Why Senior Centers are Still Relevant

Baumeister and Leary (1995) offer one supposition as to why older people might desire enhanced activity to develop and maintain friendships. Their belongingness hypothesis argues, “human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships (p. 497).” The two features that fulfill this drive are frequent personal interactions with others, and interactions that are temporally stable, including concern for each other’s welfare. Further, they found the lack of belongingness is “linked to a variety of ill effects on health, adjustment, and well-being (p. 497).”

The literature on benefits of social interaction for older adults touches on this subject. Research has consistently found there to be a positive association between social relationships and well-being ( Pinquart and Soerensen 2000; Street et al. 2007; Burge et al. 2007; Stevens et al. 2006; Tomaka et al. 2006). More specifically, findings suggest that friendship is an important predictor of well-being for older people because it helps alleviate feelings of loneliness and keeps them from being socially isolated (Aday, Kehoe, and Farney 2006; Payne et al. 2006). Therefore, if social relationships are important predictors of well-being, and tend to decline over the life course, it is important to understand how older adults deal with the changes that affect their ability to age successfully.

Senior centers can offer a place for social interaction on many different levels, including involvement in activities and classes, or through volunteering. In addition, because there are different levels of social involvement, various types of people can fill their need to socialize, whether they are retired and looking for a new community, are still working but want to meet people and learn new skills, or have never worked and enjoy the social camaraderie through the activities. Finally, a senior center can provide a place for those individuals who want to interact with peers who share similar interests, experiences, and beliefs.

Leisure Activity Promotes Successful Aging

The concept of successful aging suggests that both cognitive and behavioral factors can be used to optimize the health of older adults and assist them with adapting to change (Kahana and Kahana 2003). More specifically, successful aging includes the ability to maintain a low risk of disease and disability, high mental and physical function, active engagement with life, and be continually challenged. In general, successful agers are those who focus on things that are meaningful and important to them (Beisgen and Kraitchman 2003).

Leisure activity can be an important behavioral factor that has the potential to optimize health and well-being of older adults (Payne et al. 2006). Earlier studies of leisure examined effects on health, life satisfaction, and psychological well-being. Multiple studies found that the higher the frequency of participation in leisure activities, the higher the life satisfaction (Bevil et al. 1993; Hawkins et al. 1992; Payne et al. 2006).

Other studies examining specific types of leisure activities provide greater insight into understanding what types of activities affect psychological well-being. Brown and colleagues (1991) reported that improved well-being was significantly related to social, informal, household, and outdoor activities. Similarly, Dupis and Smale (1995) found that activities such as personal hobbies, crafts, social contact, and swimming were significantly associated to higher ratings of psychological well-being. Guinn (1999) found that older adults who participated in activities that allow self-expression enable them to help others, provide social interaction, and exhibit increased well-being.

Research has consistently found that multipurpose senior centers provide an ideal environment for leisure activities (Aday et al. 2006; Beisgen and Kraitchman 2003; Cambell and Aday 2001; Fitzpatrick et al. 2005; Turner 2004). They offer a wide range of social, health, and educational activities for their participants that provide opportunities for them to age successfully. Therefore, it is important that senior centers continue to provide diverse programs that can maximize the benefits of the participant.

Who Participates in Senior Centers?

It is essential to know the characteristics of the general older adult population. By knowing who they are, senior centers can then serve them effectively. Each cohort shows certain inclinations of a lifestyle that are particular to the influences that shaped their formative years. More specifically, these preferences shape the interests, needs, and behaviors of what participants will want from a senior center (Beisgen and Kraitchman 2003).

The social agency model suggests that senior center programs were designed to meet the survival needs of the more disadvantaged individuals, who are more likely to need and use the senior centers. The voluntary organizational model suggests that senior center activities offer opportunity for self-expression and recreation, and thus, are more likely to attract participants who are self-sufficient and more active in their communities (Schneider, Chapman, and Voth 1985). Studies consistently find that both models play a role in senior center participation. The social agency model is more likely to be associated with lower income participants who attend more frequently and primarily for social needs. The voluntary organization model is most likely to be associated with higher income participants who attend for longer durations and mostly for recreational activities (Ferraro and Cobb 1987; Fitzpatrick et al. 2005; Jirovec et al. 1989; Krout 1988; Sabin 1993).

Local samples often have distinct personalities and characteristics depending on the place. Therefore, results from one senior center may not be representative of the broader population. Despite this, by knowing who the typical participants are in an area allows for the senior center to provide appropriate services and programs that are specific to that population. 

Variation in Levels of Participation

The different levels of participation are measured by frequency, duration, stability, and amount of activity involvement (Krout 1989). The frequency of senior center attendance refers to how often an individual attends the center.

There are three different variables that measure duration of attendance. First, is how long the participant has been attending the center, measured in terms of months. The second, measures how long they usually stay at the center each visit. The third variable measures how long they usually socialize with others at the center when not in an activity.

Stability of attendance refers to changes over time in the frequency of attendance—whether the level has stayed the same, increased, or decreased. Amount of activity involvement refers to the number of different activities a participant is involved in at the center.

Overall, there is a large amount of variation in the frequency, duration, stability, and amount of activity involvement at senior centers. The levels of involvement continuously change depending on the types of activities that are offered at the center, the availability of the participants, and what the participants want to gain from attending activities at the center.

What Services Matter and What Do Participants Expect to Gain?

Services provided that are deemed important, and specific gains from attending senior centers vary by participant. In terms of service information, the survey asked how important it was that the senior center provides the participant with information about specific services (health care coverage, where to get legal help, employment opportunities, nutritional advice, social services, transportation services, volunteer opportunities, long-term care, home services). Respondents’ replies suggested that information about the following services is considered to be important to them: health care coverage (65 percent), where to get legal help (60 percent), nutritional advice (60 percent), volunteer opportunities (54 percent), and long-term care (50 percent). Overall, there are four services in which information from the senior center is not important to the participants—employment opportunities, social services, transportation services, and home services.

The various types of gains are grouped into five categories—social, psychological support, physical health, activities, and spirituality.

Social factors include making new friends, belonging to a group, and maintaining friendships while at the center. All three areas are important to the participants: 86 percent feel it’s important to make new friends, belonging to a group is important to 84 percent of the participants, maintaining friendships is also important to 79 percent of the participants.

Psychological support consists of bereavement, relaxation, support with problems, and improving mental health. Out of these four factors, relaxation (85 percent) and improving mental health from attending activities at the center (70 percent) are considered important to the participants. Bereavement (59 percent) and support with problems while at the center are not important to participants (53 percent).

Physical health includes improving physical health, staying physically active, and eating healthy meals. Of these, staying physically active (84 percent) and improving physical health (79 percent) are important to the participants. Eating healthy meals at the center is a close split with 51 percent considering it to be important and 49 percent saying it is not important.

Activities consist of learning new ideas/skills, having fun, someplace to go, and keeping busy. All four areas are important to the participants: 94 percent want to have fun when at the center, 87 percent are interested in learning new ideas/skills, 75 percent like having someplace to go, and 73 percent use the center as a way of keeping busy. 

Spirituality includes helping with spiritual beliefs, and 70 percent of the participants did not think it is an important part of the senior center.

The top five things people want to gain from participating at a senior center are having fun (94 percent), learning new ideas/skills (87 percent), making new friends (86 percent), relaxation (85 percent), and belonging to a group (84 percent). However, 50 percent or more of the participants say that all of the factors listed are important except for “support with problems,” “bereavement,” and “helping with spiritual beliefs.” These results illustrate that they want to gain different things when attending the senior center and involvement at the center can benefit them in various ways by providing a large assortment of activities. 

The findings regarding services that actually matter to participants, and knowing what they expect to gain, have significant value for professionals in the field. For policy makers, this data can provide important information about how they can effectively continue to support the senior population (Krout 1988, 1989). It can also assist practitioners in identifying needs of participants, and thus facilitate the selection of appropriate programming and staffing for the future. 

With the baby boom generation now entering retirement age, ideas of what a senior center should include will change. Therefore, senior center professionals will need to continue to study who these participants are and why they participate. In addition, they will need to be able to respond to the interests of current and future participants by continuing to develop and change as this generation grows older. Advances in our understanding of senior center participation are necessary, not only if we want to continue to appropriately serve current participants, but also to attract new ones. •CSA

Lisa A. Rill, Ph.D., received her doctorate degree in sociology at Florida State
University (FSU). Her specializations are health and aging. Dr. Rill currently works as
a research associate at the Claude Pepper Center at FSU, where she conducts research on various aging topics. She can be reached at

Senior Centers: Their Relevancy and Impact on the Social Needs of Older Adults was published in the Autumn 2013 edition of the CSA Journal.