5 Surprising Reasons to Visit Your Local Senior Center

By Denise Maher |

Don't think you'd be into exploring a senior center? The wide variety of activities and services they offer could be more life-enhancing than you expect.

Older woman dancing with a group for a story on the benefits of belonging to a senior center

Senior centers were once known as a reliable spot for a good bingo game or shuffleboard match. But what's happening inside these community facilities these days has expanded to include a lot more than metal folding chairs, weak coffee, and low-impact games and activities.

Today, they are typically vibrant, highly social places where older people —ranging in age from 60 to 100+ — are exercising, learning a new language, boning up on current technology, enjoying a hot meal, participating in a book club, and dabbling in fine-arts programs, says Dianne Stone. She is the associate director of network development and engagement at the National Council on Aging (NCOA).

No two senior centers are exactly the same, either. The 11,000 senior centers around the country - that serve more than a million older adults - all have a different mix of activities because they represent their unique communities and the people who live there.

If you've been avoiding yours because you still don't quite believe you're old enough to be there, you're missing out. Prepare to be impressed by what your local community center may have to offer you.

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You Can Combat Social Isolation — and Give Back to Your Community

Experts say that engaging with others is a crucial part of aging well, and a senior center is an easy way to do that. Caregivers and those who have recently lost their life partner are particularly at risk for social isolation, which can often lead to serious health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, depression, and dementia.

In addition to helping you expand your social circle, senior centers can provide volunteer opportunities. “Besides giving back to other older adults — via social visits or meal delivery programs — there are also ways to help others in the wider community, says Sandy Markwood. She is the CEO of USAging, an organization that helps older adults live independently in their homes and communities.

Markwood says some senior centers offer intergenerational programs where older people participate in reading programs with an elementary school or retired carpenters mentor high school students in vocational education.

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You Can Challenge Your Brain

Some of the programs available at senior centers provide a chance to challenge your mind, continue to learn, and help combat age-related cognitive decline. Check in with your local center to find out if they offer board games, foreign language or music and dance classes that will help build mental muscle.

“Cognitive activity, like chess, writing, and line dancing, helps seniors build cognitive health, and that important element of social engagement,” says Markwood.

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You Can Get a Square Meal or Learn Healthy Cooking Tips

Who doesn't want a free lunch? Dietary services at senior centers vary by state, many of them offer free or low-cost meals for adults over 60. Thanks to the Older Americans Act (OAA), there's some federal funding for programs and services that help keep people healthy and independent as they grow older.

Besides serving meals, some senior centers teach you how to prepare them too so you can serve yourself healthy, well-balanced meals.

You Can Become a Community Organizer

“Senior centers are a vital source for a lot of things,” says Thomas Kofi Mensah Cudjoe, M.D., M.P.H. He is a researcher and assistant professor of geriatric medicine and gerontology at John Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.

“We see them not only as a place for social interaction, but also for organizing and community improvement,” says Dr. Cudjoe.

The physical space can be used to gather like-minded folk and discuss local problems such as mass transit access and safety, or improvements to public park facilities. Senior centers are also a natural place to hold meetings with local officials.

Getting concerned citizens together to discuss issues important to them — whether that’s the need for a new traffic light, less age discrimination and more affordable housing — can be empowering and effective, he says.

You Can Take Part in Senior Center Programs Around Town

If you're still not really into the idea of hanging out at a senior center, Markwood notes that you may not even need to go there to reap the brain-boosting and social rewards of belonging. She explains that some agencies offer programming without a physical location.

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For example, there may be cooking classes for seniors held in a nearby cafe, or engaging senior programming at your local library, YMCA, church or other community facilities.

“More and more, we have centers without walls, area agencies that provide services, programming and support to older adults in a regular community center, local school, or community college,” she says.

How to Find Your Local Senior Center

Your local senior center is a solid place to start accessing programs, activities, and information for healthy aging.

If you’re not sure what your community offers, visit the website ElderCareLocator (eldercare.acl.gov). Enter your zip code or city and state in the search bar) or call (800) 677-1116.

You can also use this resource to learn more about the agency or department in your state that coordinates other aging-related services.

See our sources:
Number of senior centers in the U.S.: National Council on Aging
Health risks of social isolation: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Older Americans Act: National Council on Aging

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