Almost every article I have ever read begins with the coming wave of the aging baby boomer generation. Other than the fact that this sentiment seems to invoke fear and dread, and subtly implies a certain kind of cultural ageism, it is a true phenomenon. And so the Round Table Discussion group took up this topic through the lens of Senior Center programming. Unlike health care services that are understandably concerned how they will meet the need of the ever-increasing aging population, Senior Centers paradoxically, worry about shear survival.
The traditional model of a senior center is suffering from an image problem. The group that presently utilizes a center is typically in the 80-90 year old age cohort. This is a generation that has been accustomed to joining community organizations – the Rotary Club, the Lions and Elks or the VFW, for men, while women may have joined church and PTA groups and been Girl Scout leaders and Den Mothers. The boomers, on the other hand, want to feel their unique-ness and demonstrate their individuality. Senior Centers and community services are struggling to meld these two world views.
Medical services, social services and housing services were represented at the Round Table. As different as these services are, we were able to find common threads about engaging the younger population, which included food, music and deftly using the skills of other seniors in the group; one professional recounted how she had helped organize a regular poker game activity utilizing the skills of a participant to help lead and teach the game. Don’t we call this mentoring? Senior centers are making valiant efforts at offering activities that cross common generational boundaries – all dependent on the neighborhood culture in which they reside and the particular socio-economic demographic represented in the community.
Other themes emerged such as the need to collaborate with community organizations and services including assisted livings, village organizations, governmental and business groups. Working together each organization can bring its own expertise and constituency; the senior center then becomes a hub for activity thus taking it away from the age segregated concept of SENIOR center and instead more like a community center.
More ideas were explored, so much of it having to do with language. Is the title “seniors” outdated? What language works: Older Adults? Elders? Wise? How do the young old identify? Are the present day “seniors” proud of their status as seniors? As more and more older adults continue to work and centers are accommodating to new hours, “work-life” balance seems to be a better description of center offerings. And life enrichment was suggested instead of leisure activities. Language conveys so much!
So how best to engage the baby boomers such that senior centers can continue to survive and thrive? But engagement is an overused word. In an effort to re-imagine the problem, and simplistic though it may seem, I searched for synonyms for engage and found a host of words that give a more dynamic understanding. There were a group of words that meant interaction – to mesh and to associate. Certainly meshing multiple generations is a goal. There were a group of words that meant to bring in –to attract, to draw in and to absorb. And then I found touch – how do we touch you? Which I thought brought a new level of meaning. How to touch or entice you? How do we touch your heart? Because if we can touch your heart to make the connections that we know are so fundamental and crucial to an older adult – to any adult – then we will have kept you engaged.