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Senior Centers - Future Challenges

age differences adults communities serving programs

It is clear that senior centers face many challenges as they mature from their beginnings as recreational and congregate meal programs to multipurpose, multiservice organizations serving a variety of communities and older persons. Some senior centers function more as service agencies serving economically disadvantaged, socially isolated, or functionally impaired older adults, while others provide a rich menu of educational health promotion and volunteer opportunities to financially secure, well educated, and physically active seniors. But regardless of their resources and foci, all senior centers face a myriad of challenges as the older population itself grows in numbers and diversity. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing senior centers is how they will respond to the baby boomers as they enter older age.

Senior centers face four challenges if they are to remain a vital part of their communities and attract the coming generations of older adults. The first challenge is for senior centers to examine and articulate their goals and identity. What role(s) will they play and what programs will they offer in the future? It is clear that newly retired older adults today want more than group dining, recreation, and socialization opportunities. Many, but not all, centers today offer a wide range of wellness and educational activities. Some centers will keep or find an important niche in their communities offering traditional programs or serving lower-income and less healthy older adults. The majority will have to continue to respond to the changes in the ‘‘senior marketplace’’ and develop new program options. Second, senior centers will have to develop more effective marketing strategies that can compete with all the other organizations that hope to get the attention and participation of middle-aged adults as they become older. A clear, positive, and well-articulated message of what senior centers can do to keep older adults vibrant and involved with the larger community will be key to this marketing effort.

Third, as center staff plan for new programming, they must remember that the older population is not monolithic, but rather made up of individuals with different interests. The baby boom includes two ‘‘generations,’’ those who experienced the 1960s and 1970s as teenagers and very young adults, and those who reached those ages a decade later. Add education, ethnicity, and income, and the diversity becomes very apparent. Thus, choices and flexibility will be important to attracting boomers as they reach retirement age as will an understanding of the differences based on these sociodemographic characteristics. Finally, senior center advocates must step back and consider the strengths of centers within the context of the larger public policy issues that face America as it prepares for the baby boom to age. The issues include: retirement and financial security; housing and long-term care; spiritual and individual well-being; and how society can continue to provide opportunities for older adults to remain productive, contributing members of their communities and the nation as a whole.

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