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Alle-Kiski Valley senior centers adapt to boomers

| Monday, Aug. 8, 2011

With yoga, tai chi, strength-training and line-dancing classes available, the activity offerings at the Alle-Kiski Valley Senior Citizens Center read more like a gym schedule than traditional senior citizen programming.

And that just may be the way to lure baby boomers for their first time ever to senior centers.

A generation of baby boomers -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- are forcing the nation's senior citizen centers to redefine their missions by offering activities their 70-, 80- and 90-something clients generally have not demanded.

They face that challenge at a time when government funding for senior programs has remained flat for nearly a decade.

The boomers -- representing 26 percent of the nation's population -- don't want just an occasional game of bingo or bridge from the facilities. In fact, they bristle at the notion of growing old, according to a Pew Research Survey that indicates most boomers don't believe old age begins until 72.

Luring baby boomers

Boomers want the centers to help them stay healthy and active. And centers' missions are shifting from places to mingle and eat a hot lunch to places to exercise, hone computer skills and learn how to handle finances in a roller-coaster economy.

Between 35 to 40 people per class pack New Kensington's Alle-Kiski Valley Senior Citizens Center for line-dancing lessons, grooving to an eclectic mix of music from contemporary to reggae.

"It brings in that baby boomer generation," said Kathy Mazur, director of the Alle-Kiski Valley center. "That's been very helpful in brining in new people."

Magdeline Freidman, 68, of Lower Burrell, dances 10 hours a week. Her brother, Ray Heuser, also of Lower Burrell, teaches the line-dance classes.

Freidman underscores the health benefits of dancing -- the importance of physical movement and the mental processes needed to learn dances.

The center offers three levels of line dancing, plus a walking class.

It has offered line dancing for about 15 years and other fitness classes for about 10 years, meaning its ahead of the national trend.

Senior centers in East Vandergrift and Avonmore also provide classes in yoga, tai chi and strength training. Avonmore's center even offers Zumba.

The Alle-Kiski Valley center serves "cafe meals" every Friday, a lighter fare salad and soup lunch for avid exercisers. That's a change from when senior centers catered to the older population with hot lunches.

To attract baby boomers, Riverview Community Action Corporation in Oakmont, offers alternate dinners.

"They don't want to come and sit at an institution lunch, said the center's director Vanessa DuVall.

Although the organization has trouble luring baby boomers, trips, like those to casinos, to New York and a cruise to New England and Canada, are a major draw.

Baby boomers also are drawn to the center by their senior-age parents or by volunteering.

"A lot of the younger baby boomers, they'll volunteer but they don't think they're old enough to be here," DuVall said.

It's the same story at Plum Senior Community Center -- younger seniors want to lend a hand, according to Nina Segelson, the center's executive director.

"I've gotten so much help from people in that age group, which would be considered the boomer age group. ... That's a big component of boomer offerings -- the civic engagement, the volunteer opportunities," Segelson said.

The Plum center also offers Zumba, tai chi classes, a book club and a caregiver support group. It stays open in the evenings and weekends to accommodate seniors who are still working.

And this week, the center will kick off a major expansion project that will include a new kitchen and addition of a fitness center.

The center received two grants totaling $500,000 and will raise additional money through fundraising.

Serving 2 groups

The question remains about how centers can serve two distinctly different groups of senior citizens. It's one of the most significant crossroads the centers have faced since the first one opened in New York City in 1943.

"We want to appeal to anyone who's 60 and over, even the 50-and-older crowd, but it's hard to come up with activities that won't isolate the over-80 crowd," said Patty Davidson, chief development officer of the Lutheran Service Society, which runs centers in Allegheny Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland counties.

At the New Kensington center, even the name of the senior center could change, eliminating the word "senior" all together.

"The trend now is to do away with the actual name 'senior,' " center director Mazur said. "It's really like 'mature adults' so that you can capture the market that you're seeking to capture."

The center's board is considering an appropriate name. One option is "community center," although that might give a false perception that the programming is for anyone, not just the 50-plus crowd, she said.

Many centers still offer the traditional free or low-cost activities and services, including hot lunches, and supplement with new options aimed at boomers needed to fill slots as the number of older members dwindles.

The greater challenge comes in doing all that in the face of stagnant government funding and shrinking donations from businesses hit hard by the recession.

Nationally, most senior centers trace their roots to passage of the 1965 Older Americans Act, the first federal initiative to provide funding and services for older adults. The act tied the level of funding to each state's population older than 60.

Today that formula remains relatively unchanged.

Funding sources

Centers typically receive federal and state money administered by county or regional Area Agencies on Aging.

Most centers hold fundraisers and solicit support from private sources.

The state grants are tied to population data from each census, so funding has remained flat for a decade. New 2010 census data mean funding formulas will change this year according to how population has shifted since 2000, said Christina Reese, spokeswoman for the state Department of Aging.

"When you're looking at over a 10-year period not getting any increases ... (while) costs all continue to grow, it's placed a very special demand on the centers," said Crystal Lowe, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Area Agencies on Aging. "We just don't live in a time anymore where government can totally fund these programs."

It's tough for a senior center director to reconcile the need for more programming but a flatline of income.

"When funding hasn't changed for 10 years, and you're serving more people, it's very difficult," said Segelson, of the Plum Senior Community Center, "so we're constantly doing fundraisers."

Kari Andren is a staff writer with the Greensburg Tribune-Review.

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