Senior Power:Senior Center Month

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Friday August 20, 2010 - 03:35:00 PM

National Senior Center Month is coming up, in September. It is estimated that there are 10,000-16,000 senior centers in the United States. Of these, more than 6,000 receive some funding support from the Older Americans Act through service contracts awarded by state and Area Agencies on Aging for program activities. 

The National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) is a network of senior center professionals from around the nation “helping senior centers succeed… We believe that senior centers create opportunities for successful aging in our communities.” To advance the quality of senior centers, NISC promotes the nation's only National Senior Center Accreditation Program, which provides official recognition that a senior center meets nine standards of senior center operations based on excellence in programs, mission, community collaboration, administration and human resources (including volunteers), governance, planning, financial controls, reports and records, and facility. More than 200 senior centers have been accredited. 

A senior center can serve and function in important ways that are not readily seen and understood. A senior center can uniquely foster the well-being of members of diverse groups in their quests for equality, recognition and congeniality. 

A shopping bag lady may be viewed as an eccentric. In reality, she is likely to be homeless and elderly, existing in public places and lugging her possessions in shopping bags and a shopping cart, relying on a senior center for a daily meal and a destination. A shopping bag lady acquaintance was evicted from a housing project when other tenants did not find her congenial and she neglected—as some of her neighbors also did—to pay her rent in full and on time. The senior center arranged for a unit in a different developer’s project and gave her taxi scrip. 

A senior center can be an ideal place in the community to hold a free flu immunization. Adults 65 years of age and older are among the groups hardest hit by influenza, and annual vaccination remains the best protection, particularly for this population. 

A senior center’s large meeting room is ideal for candidates’ panels during pre-election periods, involving only staff or volunteer initiative and effort. 

Berkeley senior centers are non-profit community agencies funded by the City with additional funds from the Alameda County Area Agency on Aging, Measure B, corporate and individual donations and seniors’ own fundraising activities. As the largest center, the flagship North Berkeley Senior Center (NBSC), serves residents 55 years of age and over. Weekday lunch is available for a suggested donation to persons age 60+. Following decades of accomplishments, NBSC’s founding-director retired in 2007 (See August 17, 2010 Planet). Staffing has since been further reduced; services and attendance have dropped. (See January 15, 2009 Planet.) 

The following gobbledygook, fraught with historical inaccuracies, is reprinted from an Internet posting about the City of Berkeley’s Aging Services Division (ASD), which 

…coordinates a variety of services for senior residents, including running three active senior centers, a nutrition services program, and a social services program. The age, health condition, and socio-economic status of the ASD's clients vary greatly but the services offered make a great impact. The centers and nutrition program provide opportunities for frequent interaction between service providers and clients. We are partnering with the Aging Services Division and the City's IT [Information Technology] department for our final project in order to address the lack of technical infrastructure around social service delivery in our community. Our project will assess the current situation using a variety of methods and then turn to designing, prototyping, and testing a client registration, activity tracking and reporting system for the senior centers. The system needs to be able to accommodate the regular ‘ground-truth’ interactions which can help identify additional services available to, or required by, clients. It also needs to serve a reflective capacity within the organization, allowing it to understand itself more effectively and allow for coordination between geographically dispersed workplaces. The ASD staff are constrained by their existing information infrastructure, which is unable to support these functions in the way that a networked system would be able to. Working with the IT [Information Technology] department we will conduct a full business analysis, and offer a viable implementation plan that takes into account both social and technical considerations. Our goal is to understand the complexity of social service delivery and deliver actionable designs for a system which respects the lived reality of the staff and presents them with the opportunity to participate in the design process, yielding a better end result. 

Four students studying for the Master in Information Management and Systems degree at the UC Berkeley School of Information (formerly the “library school”), have explored ways and means of “Increasing senior center participation through participant-centered activities” in a project that is part of the ASD’s “Supporting community services for aging populations” : 

We conducted a business analysis of the Division’s operations, undertook qualitative research, and engaged in participatory design activities to understand the information needs of Berkeley Aging Services along with their goals in order to identify clear, implementable plans for improvement. We identified three core functions our proposed system must facilitate to help the Aging Services Division accomplish its goals. It needs to store information about the seniors in a structure appropriate to the needs of the staff including, for example, medically relevant emergency information. It needs to allow for greater sharing among members of the staff, especially [among] different centers. Finally, it needs to offer Aging Services administration the ability to reuse information on demand for grants or other reporting. 

One thing we have learned in the course of our project is that the principal objective of the senior center directors is to increase participation at their centers. In a time when class[es] are being cut by the Berkeley Adult School, participation at some or all of the centers may be in jeopardy. One solution may be to find more volunteers or other people to teach classes and lead activities at the centers. The limitation of this approach is the difficulty in finding people to organize a class and commit to a series of classes that meets consistently. Another approach would be to open up activities to the participants themselves by allowing them to organize activities informally and schedule and coordinate times when they can meet. There is some precedent for this at the North Center [North Berkeley Senior Center]. A group of participants organized and [led] the planning of the Chinese New Celebration last year. There is also some support in academic papers about giving more responsibility to the center participants over the activities that [they] organize. 

The students’ research involves two articles. One is about the way "territories" or "cliques" can supposedly form in a senior center, and suggests that a more open participant driven center has fewer territorial qualities and is more open to newcomers. They conclude that it is important to examine the physical, organizational, and social environments of these centers to identify the patterns of spatial claims and social behaviors. 

The other article concerns the reasons that a group of seniors self-organized meetings at a fast-food restaurant for fun and socializing and why they chose this setting over a senior center. “Senior centers were seen by this group as places where old people went to get help, and were perceived as overly structured. Many were not interested in the activities offered at senior centers such as arts and craft work (e.g. crochet and watercolor painting). These older adults did not see that they needed the level of help, structure, or constraint that they felt were characteristic of senior centers. What they most wanted to do at the restaurant was to ‘‘hang out with my friends.’ ” 


Attention, candidates… Running for election? You are invited to email to Senior Power ( a statement of your “platform” concerns regarding senior citizens. If you are running for re-election, please describe the highlights of your record on issues important to seniors.