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Senior centers in Western Pa. change to meet demands of baby boomers

| Saturday, March 21, 2015, 7:34 p.m.
Ali Popivchak (far left) leads a chair yoga class at the South Side Market House Senior Center Thursday, March 19, 2015 in the South Side.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Ali Popivchak (far left) leads a chair yoga class at the South Side Market House Senior Center Thursday, March 19, 2015 in the South Side.
Luther Court residents Mary Ehrman, 81, and Betty Morris, 89, dance during a St. Patrick's Day celebration at the Butler senior center Tuesday, March 17, 2015.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Luther Court residents Mary Ehrman, 81, and Betty Morris, 89, dance during a St. Patrick's Day celebration at the Butler senior center Tuesday, March 17, 2015.
Lucy Blain (left) and Rita Ross (right) both of the South Side play cards in the main hall of the South Side Market House Senior Center Thursday, March 19, 2015 in the South Side.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Lucy Blain (left) and Rita Ross (right) both of the South Side play cards in the main hall of the South Side Market House Senior Center Thursday, March 19, 2015 in the South Side.

Rita Ross felt the loss when her senior center closed in Brashear a few years ago because of dwindling attendance.

“I was sad,” the 78-year-old South Side resident said. “I was used to the people there.”

Now, she spends one day a week at the South Side Market House Senior Center at 12th and Bingham streets, where people 60 and older engage in activities ranging from bingo to yoga to simply enjoying a good meal.

Local aging agencies acknowledge they've got to rethink how they operate senior centers. Foot traffic is down at many, and the younger segment of the population — those 60 to 70 years old — aren't keen on embracing the label “senior.”

“They're creating an age segregation that's less needed and less interesting to the population,” said Joseph Angelelli, an assistant professor at Robert Morris University's School of Nursing and Health Sciences in Moon. “Baby boomers don't want to be segregated, and the older population doesn't want to be segregated. They want to be a part of life.”

Westmoreland County calls its 13 sites “Centers for Active Adults,” said interim Director of Human Services Dirk Matson, enticing people with activities ranging from day trips to aerobics and book clubs.

“We're trying to figure out ways these very useful resources can be used for seniors,” Matson said. “The seniors that use them love them.”

Between August and Jan. 31, the centers had an average of 538 people, combined, use services daily.

Statewide, the number of visits to senior centers is dropping, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Aging. For fiscal year 2011-12, there were more than 4.4 million, but in 2013-14, that number dropped to just under 3.9 million.

The department cited factors including people putting off retirement, participating in volunteer activities and caregiving for a family member, though it said participation in meal programs rose in some parts of the state.

Butler County is in the midst of surveying about 4,800 seniors concerning the future of its senior centers. The county says it's spending $720,000 a year on a system that attracts, on good days, about 200 people combined to 10 centers. The county's Agency on Aging is considering cutting back on the centers' hours or possibly something as drastic as closing most of the centers and creating two “anchor” sites: one in the Clearview Mall near the center of the county and another in Cranberry in the south near Allegheny County.

Several patrons at the Luther Court senior center in Zelienople said last week they wouldn't want to have to take a bus to one or two senior centers. Most live in the apartment building that houses the senior center, and that's their primary social interaction.

“The older people, they need this kind of stimulation for themselves,” said Cheryl Kucharski, 67, a Luther Court resident.

Beaver County created one large senior center in the Beaver Valley Mall and has four others throughout the county.

Mary Lynn Spilak, director of Washington County's aging services, acknowledged the county needs to change the way it does things.

“We've used the same model that we've used for the past 25 to 30 years,” she said.

The county's nine senior centers cost $70,000 to $90,000 apiece to run annually; 40 to 45 people visit each of them daily, Spilak said.

Allegheny County's 51 senior centers each see an average of 45 people daily, said Mildred Morrison, administrator of the county's Area Agency on Aging, down 1 or 2 percent from 2014.

“The choices open to younger older adults are growing,” she said.

The county pays 14 outside agencies that run the centers $3.7 million a year, along with another $1.2 million for meals served there.

Morrison said she's encouraged by the agencies' move to offer programs and services outside the senior centers at places such as a local library.

“We're thinking of senior centers as more a service than as a place,” she said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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