Whether it’s due to distance or the passing of friends and family, many older adults find themselves outside of the social circles to which they once belonged. Now aged and reliant on others for help, many seniors become isolated and depressed, which can have devastating effects on physical and emotional health. But senior centers across the country, including those that are part of the Carter Burden Network, are working to combat the isolation and loneliness our elderly neighbors are facing.
According to “U.S. County Profiles” published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, ‘with New Yorkers across the state living longer than ever before, the population ages 85 and above is also booming’ (“U.S. County Profiles”, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, www.healthdata.org/us-health/data-download). So, addressing the needs of this population is becoming increasingly significant. No matter the programs these senior centers offer, the goal, by and large, is to establish a supportive community that offers vital resources that support healthy independence and provide opportunities to form enriching connections with others. Senior centers serve as resource hubs for seniors that address their comprehensive needs in an environment without stigma, offer a stimulating atmosphere, and help them achieve a better quality of life, while often keeping – or getting – them healthy.
Many senior centers offer congregate meal programs, and their benefits extend beyond nutrition by also addressing socialization needs. In a study of national nutritional services programs for older adults by the Administration for Community Living (Mabli, J., & Gearan, L. The Nutrition Services Program Outcomes Evaluation (Fact Sheet) (No. cfe476fed06d4533a8c20a9c4eb7874b). Mathematica Policy Research), congregate meal participants experienced higher levels of socialization than non-participants. Daily meal service at senior centers allows for consistent, meaningful interaction with staff, volunteers, and other seniors.
Delivering more than just food, senior centers’ home-delivered meal programs address the loneliness experienced by homebound seniors. For homebound individuals, a visit from a home delivery volunteer or staff member is very often their only friendly interaction for the day. Studies consistently link loneliness and social isolation to increased risk for chronic health conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, emphysema, depression, and cognitive decline (Lipman, M. & Waxman, E. (2017, May 31). For Socially Isolated Seniors, Meals on Wheels Delivers More Than Food. Retrieved from https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/socially-isolated-seniors-meals-wheels-delivers-more-food). In a 2015 study of homebound older adults, after 15 weeks, those who received home-delivered meals (often delivered by senior centers) had lower rates of self-reported loneliness2. These services ensure that vulnerable seniors can safely remain in their homes and still experience meaningful engagement with others and remain connected to their community.
In addition to meal service, recreational senior center activities provide further opportunities for seniors to socialize with others while exploring their interests and talents. Many centers offer a wide array of art classes and performance groups, which allow seniors to make new friends, learn new skills, and build on ones they may already have. Educational activities, including computer and language classes, help seniors improve their communication skills, stay in touch with friends and family, and engage in the digital world. Health and wellness programs, from Zumba to yoga and everything in between, encourage seniors to make health and fitness a priority in a supportive and encouraging environment. By inspiring their creativity and empowering their sense of purpose and value, we combat the negativity of ageism and the societal stigmas associated with it.
It is important that senior centers provide critical social services as well. Case managers or social workers provide onsite social service assistance to help seniors with things like government benefits, landlord/tenant disputes, and traditional healthcare. Many seniors do not have friends or family to help them navigate these complicated situations. And, while so much of staff attention is focused on enhancing our seniors’ quality of life, we also focus on advocacy for them and protection from those who seek to take advantage of our isolated, vulnerable neighbors. Sadly, elder abuse and mistreatment is prevalent in our society. Whether physical, emotional, verbal, or by way of phone, mail, or electronic scams, senior centers must find ways to educate seniors themselves and the volunteers and staff who serve them on signs of abuse to look out for.
Many centers also recognize the importance of intergenerational activities, especially since seniors may be far away from their children and grandchildren. By bringing these generations together for fun activities, everyone has the opportunity to both teach and learn from those of a different age group.
Celebrating the cultures and customs of the seniors you serve not only creates a sense of community and helps keep individuals connected to their heritage, but it also introduces new traditions to people of different cultures and provides new understanding and growth among the community.
Perhaps one of the most visual examples of how the Carter Burden Network helps seniors maintain their individuality and vitality is through the Carter Burden Gallery in New York City, which showcases the works of professional artists aged 60 and older who live in the New York City metropolitan area. The Gallery combats ageism and isolation in the art world by offering a venue for older artists to showcase their transformative and cutting-edge work and by fostering a supportive and culturally-diverse community of artists.
By offering a wide range of activities and programming, senior centers can ensure they are addressing the unique and individual needs of the aging population. We must always remember to encourage individuality, celebrate culture, and ensure that the voices of our older adults are heard. It’s easy for seniors to feel isolated, invisible, and vulnerable, but we can fight these challenges with love, belonging, and increased access to programs and services that seek to nourish the mind, body, and spirit.
The Carter Burden Network promotes the well-being of seniors 60 and older through a continuum of services, advocacy, arts and culture and volunteer programs, all oriented to individual, family and community needs. Please visit www.carterburdennetwork.org or call (212) 879-7400.