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Senior Centers


The modern-day senior center traces its roots back to the early 1940s when one of the earliest centers (the Hodson Center in New York City) focused on meeting the needs of lower income older people (Gelfand). The number of senior centers has grown to between twelve thousand and fourteen thousand depending on what one considers a senior center to be (Krout, 1989b; Wagner). Three White House Conferences on Aging, the passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965 and its subsequent amendments, and the activities of the National Council on the Aging have played important roles in this growth and expansion. According to the National Council on the Agings National Institute of Senior Centers, A senior center is a community focal point on aging where older adults come together for services and activities that reflect their experience and skills, respond to their diverse needs and interests, enhance their dignity, support their independence, and encourage involvement in and with the community (p. 5).

Most senior centers are multipurpose in that they provide a range of activities and services and are multifaceted in terms of the functions they fulfill for older participants as well as the roles they play in local social and health service networks. Throughout their history, senior centers have responded to the needs of at-risk and well older persons, with some centers developing a greater emphasis on one group or the other. Thus, perhaps more than any other word, variation defines senior centers today. Depending on the senior center and the geographic area in which it is located, considerable diversity is found in who attends a center, the number of programs it offers, and the size of its facility, staff, and resources.

Senior centers find themselves facing fundamental questions about what they do, who they serve, and how they can best respond to recent and projected demographic and social changes in the United States. Some of the most important questions are: How successfully do senior centers respond to the economic, cultural, and social diversity among older adults, and how should/can they best meet the needs of an increasingly diverse older population? What roles can senior centers best play in the menu of communitybased services and what must centers do to ensure their viability in the future? Will the programming that people in their sixties found appealing twenty years ago attract baby boomers when they begin to reach retirement age beginning in the year 2010?

Focal points

Senior centers have played an important and highly visible role in the aging services network since its creation by the Older Americans Act (OAA) in the 1970s. This network is made up of State Units on Aging (SUAs), Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs), and community-based service providers such as senior centers. The 1978 amendments to the OAA explicitly outlined the role that local senior centers should play as focal points to bring older adults in contact with the myriad of programs and agencies designed to meet their needs. Researchers have found that most multipurpose senior centers do play focal point roles providing information and linkages to other programs and collocation of services with other agencies (Krout, 1989a). Thus, senior centers generally have a considerable degree of visibility and support in these communities and often serve as a major entry point into the service system.

Awareness and utilization

Although only a handful of studies have been carried out on the awareness of senior centers (as opposed to services in general), it would appear that the large majority of older adults are aware of these organizations (Krout, 1984). As for center utilization, it is difficult to say with certainty just what percentage of older adults actually use senior centers, how frequent and intense this use is, and what activities and services older adults participate in when they do attend. Data from a 1984 national study focusing on health and social situations of older adults reveal that 13.7 percent of those persons sixty or over had attended a senior center in the preceding year (Krout et al.). Studies from the 1980s and 1990s have reported a wide range of utilization rates from 8 percent to 21 percent (Calsyn and Winter; Krout, 1983, 1996a). Thus, it would appear reasonable to state that between 10 to 20 percent of elderly adults in this country currently attend senior centers at least once a year. This figure translates into three and a half to seven million people age sixty-five and over. This figure should probably be increased by around one to one and a half million to include an additional 10 or more percent of the almost twelve million persons age sixty to sixty-four. The total number then might be as high as seven million and could even be higher if one considers that at least some nonusers might want to participate but do not for one reason or another.

What about change in the numbers or rates of senior center participation? Data collected as part of a longitudinal study of a national sample of senior centers conducted in the 1980s indicate that one-quarter of the centers experienced a decline in the number of participants or did not change while one-half had an increase. It is likely that the rates of center use among the older population did not change significantly in the 1990s, but the numbers have increased nationwide because the number of senior centers and seniors continued to grow in the 1980s and 1990s. However, senior center utilization patterns no doubt vary widely. For example, the majority of the more than one hundred rural AAA directors interviewed in the late 1980s reported significant declines in senior center attendance in their planning and service areas (Krout, 1989b). More recent anecdotal accounts indicate that many suburban senior centers, as well as those in big cities experiencing growth in their older population, have seen increases in participation.

Programs and activities

It is clear that the breadth and depth of senior center programming has expanded considerably in the past fifty years. As senior centers enlarged their resource and user base and provisions of the Older Americans Act evolved to more clearly specify the types of services fundable at the local level, a progressive increase in service offerings followed. Data from a national longitudinal study of senior centers found a mean of eleven activities and sixteen services for 1989 (Krout, 1994a). Approximately 90 percent of the centers were reported to offer information and referral, transportation, and congregate meals, and 70 percent home-delivered meals. Over three-quarters of the centers offered health screening and maintenance, health education, and nutrition education. Telephone reassurance, friendly visiting, and information and assistance servicesfor consumers, housing, crime prevention, financial and taxes and legal aid, and social securitywere offered by around two-thirds of the centers. Similar figures were found in a 1995 survey of over four hundred upstate New York congregate programs (Krout, 1996b).

A smaller percentage of the centers reported in-home services with one-third offering homemaker, home health, and home repair/ winterization. Special services, income supplement, and personal counseling and mental health services were reported by an even smaller percentage of centers (between 20 and 40 percent,) and adult day care by 15 percent. Not surprisingly, centers with larger budgets, more staff, and affiliations with multiservice organizations, as well as with a greater percentage of users with higher incomes and over age seventy-five, reported a greater number of programs. Longitudinal research found that during the 1980s, 60 percent of centers were reported to have experienced an increase in the number of activities they offered and only one in eight noted a decrease (Krout, 1994a).

Characteristics of senior center participants

An extremely important question is simple: Who participates in senior centers? The answer of who uses and benefits from senior centers has considerable policy and funding implications. As usual, generalizations are risky because most senior centers draw their users from a fairly limited geographic area and have user populations that reflect those areas. Centers located in minority communities will have largely minority users, while those in largely white suburbs will have mostly white, middle-income users. Krouts longitudinal study found the following averages for participant characteristics in 1989: 11 percent under sixty-five; 41 percent between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-four; 37 percent aged seventy-five to eighty-four; and 10 percent age eighty-five and over. Three-quarters were female and 71 percent unmarried, and 85 percent were reported to be white. Slightly more than one-quarter reported incomes of less than $5,000, 36 percent from $5,000 to $9,999 and 37 percent more than $10,000 (Krout, 1994b).

Several studies conducted in New York in the 1990s report some similar findings, but also illustrate the great diversity among senior center users. While similar in terms of age and gender, senior centers in upstate New York surveyed in 1995 reported higher percentages of whites and higher incomes (Krout, 1996b) than reported for a 1999 sample of New York City participants (Berman).

Krouts national research also provides some insight into changes experienced by senior centers in the 1980s that likely continued in the 1990s. Fifty six percent of center directors surveyed said the age of participants had gotten older on average and only 14 percent said it had gotten younger, suggesting the aging cohort of current senior center users is not being replaced by the young-old. Respondents were about equally split when it came to changes in the health of participants. Three out of ten indicated the health had decreased while 27 percent said it had increased. Almost 60 percent reported an increase in the number of participants categorized as frail while only 12 percent indicated a decrease in that number. Almost three-quarters noted no change in the percentage of participants that were non-white.

Programming for the frail

An important question related to participant characteristics and a key to senior center identity and the roles they play in the community-based service network is the degree to which senior centers serve older adults with cognitive and/or physical limitations. A number of researchers looking at senior center participation and participants have observed that frail older persons are underserved by such places, and that older individuals who are frail physically and mentally or are members of minority groups make up a very small percentage of senior center users. On the other hand, research also suggests that relative to other organizations, senior centers are significantly involved with programming for frail people. For example, Cox and Monk (1989, 1990) report that 90 percent of the New York State center directors they surveyed said frail older adults were integrated into center programming and 16 percent said their centers had developed separate programs for this populations. Conrad and others found that senior centers were the most prevalent co-location site for nonfreestanding adult day care programs in the United States.

Krout conducted an exhaustive review of the research on this topic in the early 1990s (Krout, 1995) and concluded that the lack of data and definitional inconsistencies made it difficult to assess the exact degree to which senior centers serve frail older adults. Many of the services that centers routinely offer can be of value to individuals who need assistance with daily activities (e.g., adult day care, transportation, in-home meals and other in-home services, telephone reassurance). A much smaller but still significant number of centers develop programs to meet the needs of older adults with particular functional limitations. Planning, financial resources and time, appropriate space, and staff training are often cited as critical to successful senior programming for frail older adults. Again, considerable variation is found between senior centers in the numbers of elders with significant physical or cognitive limitations served. As senior center user populations age-in-place, these organizations are facing increasing numbers of physically and mentally frail participants in need of supportive programming. Thus, there is a demographic as well as a social imperative for more information on and support of center activities for at-risk older populations.

Future challenges

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.


It is clear that senior enters have grown and diversified over the years. Shifts in federal and state spending and priorities in health and social services for older adults to a great focus on cost containment and targeting the at-risk, and changing demographics and retirement patterns have had considerable impacts on senior center programming. Senior center professionals in the 1980s worked to identify and refine the roles of centers in relation to focal point functions and the (not always compatible) needs and interests of the newly retired, long-time center users, and frail, at risk older persons. They expanded center linkages with other agencies.

One of the biggest strengths of senior centers is their diversity and their ability to serve different segments of the older population in many different ways. Senior centers do many things well with relatively few resources and certainly are capable of improving and expanding existing functions given the appropriate resources and mission. They have been challenged by the growth of a larger and more diverse older population during times of fiscal constraints; challenges that will increase many fold with the aging of the baby boom. Although clearly a part of the community-based services system, they still carry an image for some (older persons, policymakers, and academics) of places largely for recreation and socialization. Much of the future success of senior centers will depend on the ability of center professionals to articulate and realize new visions of center roles and programming that respond to the interests and capabilities of both current and coming generations of older adults.

John A. Krout

See also Congregate and Home-Delivered Meals; Older Americans Act.


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