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Evolving needs of a new generation of elders prompt changes at area senior centers


Seniors in a Video Conference

Evolving needs of a new generation of elders prompt changes at area senior centers  

Pat Taylor, of Clinton, follows the instructions given by her instructor, Linda Bonazzoli, right, during the strength and aerobics class at the Northborough Senior Center. Daily News and Wicked Local Photo/Kathleen Culler.

Sunlight floods through the windows of the Northborough Senior Center, splashing over the pale wood floors where a dozen women roll out brightly colored yoga mats.

Minutes before it was transformed into a temporary yoga studio, the room housed five women hula-hooping for exercise. These seniors, ranging in age from just AARP-eligible to veteran elders, sat in the big, bright building, enjoying the new era of senior centers.

As baby boomers age, the idea of what it means to be a senior citizen is changing, bringing senior centers along with it. Once places for playing bridge, bingo and not much else, many directors say MetroWest senior centers have quickly transformed into fun and vibrant community centers for the 50-plus crowd.

“I wanted to be actively engaged in the community,” Nancy Brigham of Northborough said of why she first came to the senior center. “The baby boomer generation, we’ve been brought up to make getting older seem not as old.”

Seniors who participate in centers are shown to be healthier, more social and more satisfied with their lives, according to the National Council on Aging. Participation can help delay onset of chronic disease and helps all aspects of well-being from physical to emotional, the council’s research shows.

Massachusetts AARP director Mike Festa said the new generation of seniors want all these benefits without the age factor attached to centers. Though many 80 and older members still enjoy weekly bingo, he said the 60-year-olds want something new.

“With senior centers, the traditional model wouldn’t work because, to start with, there is a barrier,” Festa said. “People don’t want to be thought of as getting old at a senior center the way their parents might have been.”

In response, center directors like Southborough’s Pam LeFrancois are adding programs that once seemed far-fetched.

LeFrancois added a tai chi class in Southborough, initially scheduling one per week. The class was so unexpectedly popular that she just added a fourth. Southborough programming director Peg Leonard said she is scheduling more adventurous activities like hiking and kayaking at the request of some boomers.

“We’ve got the older group, but a big influx of younger seniors are coming,” LeFrancois said. “They’re looking for different things to do.”

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, seniors make up about 11 percent of the country’s population. By 2030, seniors will be about 20 percent of the population. Boomers now account for more than two-thirds of the seniors, according to the National Council on Aging.

Fran Bakstran, assistant director of the Area Agency on Aging at BayPath Elder Services in Marlborough, a group that gives out grants for programming to senior centers, said there has been a noticeable shift in requests.

Center directors are looking for money to fund new and unique programs, BayPath director of community services Monica Alley said. Many are focused on health and wellness as seniors are looking to stay active longer, Bakstran added.

With seniors young and old coming to centers, Bakstran said directors have a unique challenge of programming for a sometimes 30-year age range.

“You have that generation of 80 and older still looking for a traditional senior center venue and the younger seniors who want it all new. They are bringing that new dynamic,” Bakstran said. “It’s the only age category that we put a 30-year span in the same group. You never say we have a program for 18- to 45-year-olds. It is a movement with everything across the country because of baby boomers.”

The new seniors coming to centers are often still working, or looking to make their golden years long and fun. Baby boomers don’t want to feel old, Festa said, and look to their senior centers to help them.

Franklin Senior Center director Karen Alves said she fields a lot of requests from seniors relating to health.

“One of the biggest things we do is wellness and fitness,” Alves said. “Tai chi and yoga are popular. Any of the fitness programs are popular.”

To meet this demand, centers are providing programs like Northborough’s hula-hooping or Framingham’s table tennis, not only because seniors are asking for them, but to attract new seniors to the center.

Some boomers might be hesitant to attend center activities because they don’t feel like seniors, Festa said. Many centers try to combat that stigma through outreach.

By Brittney McNamara

Daily News Staff

November 22. 2014

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