Need for senior centers will continue, leaders predict

As Senior Citizens of Marion County Inc. this week celebrates 50 years of serving the needs of older residents locally, and shaping senior care nationally, leaders say the future of the venture appears solid?even though the look of local programs may change with the times.

And times continue to change. Currently, as public funding tightens because of the economic recession, baby boomers are entering their senior years in large numbers and with myriad lifestyle and entertainment expectations.

Even so, Julie Govert Walter, who is in daily contact with senior centers in Marion County and 17 surrounding counties as executive director of the North-Central Flint Hills Area Agency on Aging, one thing won?t change about the centers of the future.

?The senior center of the future is going to be like the senior center of the past in that it will reflect the need for seniors, caregivers and members of a community to come together to honor and value the contributions of the older people in the community,? Govert Walter said.

?Senior centers are not always going to look and be the same that they are today,? she added. ?Maybe they won?t even be called senior centers, but places where seniors and people of the community can gather together.

?Those places are going to reflect the caring quality of a community. And it?s going to reflect the vitality, in many ways, of the community itself.?

More participation

Centers of the future will need to find ways to increase participation. This is specifically true when it comes to nutrition and other services that receive public funding according to the number of people who use them.

But broader participation isn?t a new challenge.

Having researched the history of senior centers in Marion County in preparation for the 50th anniversary celebration, Gayla Ratzlaff, coordinator of the county?s Depart??ment on Aging, said getting younger seniors involved in local senior centers surfaces as a recurring theme.

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?It was a challenge way back when, it?s a challenge now and it will be more so in the future because those younger seniors will probably have to work longer rather than retire,? Ratz?laff said.

?It may be a longer time before they come to a senior center. Or, centers will need to change so they can meet the needs of younger seniors differently than they do for the people who retired at the traditional age.?

Lila Unruh, chairperson of the Senior Citizens of Marion County board, said she recalls that her hometown center in Durham drew up to 60 people to its monthly meetings when it opened in the 1970s.

Today, average participation is between 20 to 25 per month.

?And that?s good for us, compared to what it used to be,? Unruh said. ?In the ?80s it was way down.

?I don?t see people as interested in coming to the senior centers as they used to be,? she said. ?Everybody seems to have a lot of places to go. There?s a lot of people who could come, but they just don?t.?

Ratzlaff agreed.

?I think there?s a whole group of people who could be drawn in,? she said. ?I?m just not sure what they?re looking for, and they must be having their needs met somewhere else. At this point, they don?t see involvement in a senior center as important to them.?

Ratzlaff said the arrival of the baby-boomer generation won?t make the challenge easier.

?I think (centers will) continue to be a place where people can come and socialize and fellowship with one another,? she said. ?But with baby boomers, you?re dealing with a group of people that, because of their numbers, society has always catered to them. Grade schools and middle schools and high schools were all created because of their numbers.

?The other thing they?ve always had is choice of what they want to do,? she added. ?There?s a lot more things today that seniors can do than when senior centers first started. That may be one reason why the numbers are the way they are.?

Community assets

Govert Walter is convinced senior centers will continue to function because of the value they bring to a community. How they choose to function remains to be seen and will vary from community to community.

?Senior centers, in my way of thinking, are going to change,? she said. ?They?re going to become more centers of information and centers for opportunity. Senior centers will be as important, if not more important, in our communities in the future.?

Govert Walter said seniors are a resource no community can afford to ignore.

?There?s nothing that can replace experience, and our older friends and neighbors have experience,? she said. ?They?ve encountered a lot of different times and situations. They don?t always talk about it, but they have amazing insights.?

Unruh said seniors centers will be an important resource because of the connection seniors establish with each other. She sees more of that happening in the years ahead.

?I would think it would probably be trying to have a place for fellowship and maybe reaching out to others,? she said of a center?s primary contribution. ?I think that?s where you find out if people have a need, and can maybe help each other in one way or another.?

Positive outlook

Unruh is positive about the future of senior centers and Senior Citizens of Marion County Inc.

She said the board she leads is filled with positive people and that Ratzlaff is the ?right person at the right time? in her role with the Department on Aging.

It was Ratzlaff who suggested that the organization enhance its impact by launching a scholarship program for a 2011 Marion County high school senior who plans on going into a field related to aging. The free-will offering at this week?s annual meeting will go toward that scholarship.

?I see that as a very positive outreach and it was accepted very quickly by the board,? Unruh said.

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