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Senior Centers Have Evolved Through the Years

By Debra Mitchell, Associate Editor, Senior Digest

In the spring of 1962 when Baltimore County’s first center for older adults was founded, its members wouldn’t allow the words “senior center” to appear on the address sign. Instead, the Towson group named itself. They chose Bykota, an acronym for a Biblical phrase, “Be ye kind one to another.”

Members ranged in age from 60 to late eighties. Photographs show well-dressed ladies in dresses, stockings and heels and gentlemen in pressed white shirts and suits and ties painting pictures, preparing meals for the home-bound and socializing.

Starting as one of two pilot projects in the Baltimore area, Bykota House aimed to put “meaning into some lives where meaning can easily become a word without meaning.” The Towson location was chosen because census information showed that this part of the county had the highest concentration of persons over 65 years of age.

Today there are 20 Baltimore County senior centers. Most all of the centers were started in private facilities such as churches where they began as a church or community club. Now, 19 centers are located in county-owned facilities. The newest one in Arbutus was added in 2010. According to Jan Heaberlin, western regional manager, Baltimore County Department of Aging (BCDA) Senior Centers, “Some centers are physically similar because they were built using the same architectural drawings. Others, however, look very different. For example, Edgemere Senior Center is on the waterfront and members can arrive by boat. Pikesville and Arbutus centers are part of libraries, and Bykota, Ateaze, and Parkville are housed in surplus schools.” Regardless of appearances, however, each has its own personality that reflects its unique membership.

On March 7, 2012, more than 150 men and women aged 60 and over gathered in the Edgemere Senior Center in Sparrows Point to celebrate the center’s 40th anniversary. Arguably the most beautiful, it’s located on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The building has spacious, light-filled rooms with large windows that maximize the view of the sparkling water.        

According to a survey conducted by BCDA several years ago, the number-one reason people come to senior centers is to socialize. “It’s where friendships are made and where romance sometimes blossoms,” says Jill Hall, chief of BCDA’s Senior Centers and Community Services Division. “People like coming to a senior center because it’s like the TV show, “Cheers” where ‘everyone knows your name.’”

Art to Zumba

Just as they did in the sixties, they also come for the activities. An article from The Sun, dated January 27, 1966, reported that members gathered to socialize, play cards and learn to paint pictures. Usually, there was a community service project in progress such as preparing kits for the Cancer Crusade.

Arriving at 8:30 a.m., Mondays through Fridays, Josie and her husband, Al Dziennik, start the day at Edgemere Senior Center, a schedule they have followed for 20 and 25 years, respectively. This is where they met. Usually, on Tuesdays they play Texas Hold’em and bunco with a packed crowd. On Wednesdays, they play cornhole and Josie works on her crocheting. When it’s “French Fry Friday Frenzy,” they enjoy bingo and hot dogs and, of course, french fries.

The variety of activities the 20 centers offer is impressive. According to Jean Fitz, BCDA’s eastern regional manager of Senior Centers, “Fitness is the rage! 13 senior centers have fitness rooms equipped with treadmills, recumbent bikes, strength training circuits, flexibility and stretching stations and free weights. We have aerobics, tai chi, walking groups, weight management and line, ballroom and hip hop dancing,” she explains. Health screenings and a plethora of educational workshops on health-related topics are also popular.

Since not all activities are available at any one center, many seniors participate at multiple centers, depending upon the activity they seek. Volleyball is offered at Parkville, bocce and cycling at Ateaze, softball at Catonsville, basketball at Bykota, in addition to an array of classes, lectures, and workshops that include belly dancing, language acquisition, bridge and more. Several centers send teams to the Senior Olympics, and Jacksonville is hosting a golf tournament April 11. Members also travel through Europe, cruise the Caribbean, and enjoy day trips to Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania’s Amish markets and local art exhibits, for example.

During the day’s anniversary celebration, members are using cell phones to check messages and snap photos of one another as they wait for the events to begin. In preparation, Al Dziennik, 91, has scanned photos from the past 25 years and created a slide show that plays on a screen throughout the afternoon. When special guest, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz speaks to the group, he is highly complimentary of the dedicated members, the beautiful setting, and the modern facility. “Edgemere Senior Center,” he points out to the jovial crowd who are obviously enjoying every minute, “even has a dedicated Wii room!”

By contrast, the only technology available to the Bykota House members in the ‘60s was an extension on the county telephone switchboard. Then, as many as 90 members a week participated without the assistance of paid administrators. And like today, they pay no dues. Just as Bykota House members “fed a kitty” in the ‘60s, today’s senior center members make voluntary contributions. Since each of the 20 senior centers is a separate 501(c) 3, each one is governed by its own by-laws and has the ability to raise money specifically for that particular center. These tax-free donations fund travel, dinners, bingo, breakfasts, flea markets, and health fairs among other initiatives.

 Challenges of Changes

Some challenges have continued through the years. According to the Sun article, “There is little direct public transportation in the northern end of the county, taxicabs are too expensive for most and volunteers to drive are difficult to find.” To alleviate some of the transportation problems, especially for those who need a way to get to and from medical appointments, BCDA developed a transportation program, Baltimore CountyRide. CountyRide serves county residents 60 years of age and older, persons with disabilities ages 18-59, and rural residents of all ages.

Staffing the front desk, assisting with phone call inquiries, walk-ins and other traditional roles is every bit as important as ever. However, centers’ directors understand that in order to meet the needs of today’s members, volunteers who possess non-traditional skills and who can fill some roles that didn’t exist a few years ago are invaluable. Leadership roles continue to be necessary to lead the councils and to chair committees. Today, it’s the fortunate senior center director who has former marketers with the savvy to promote and find sponsorships for the 5K walk, former accountants to help with auditing and development professionals who can help write grants among other needs. Likewise, volunteers with social marketing skills and those who can staff the fitness centers are highly sought. Rosedale, Essex and Seven Oaks Senior Centers, for example, have web sites that were developed and implemented by their members.   

Today, people have busy lives. Many continue to work beyond 65 years and well into their seventies; others take care of their grandchildren. Marketers understand the value of older adults and target them heavily, resulting in seniors having even more options of how to spend their free time and money.

According to Joanne E. Williams, the director of BCDA, “The noon meal used to be a draw. Now people have more options and we are no longer the only game in town,” she says. More seniors today choose to pop in and out of a center rather than stay for lunch and spend the entire day. However, there are exceptions, the director acknowledges. Al and Josie, for example, never miss having lunch at Edgemere because according to Josie, “Lunch is great!” To them, the food is good and lunch at the center allows them to stay and participate in the activities they came there to enjoy.                                                                                                                               

 Where You Come to Stay Young

Comparing today’s costs with those of 40 years ago, the County Executive regaled the Edgemere group by reminding them that the cost of a gallon of gasoline used to be a mere 55 cents and the price of a movie ticket was only $2.85. As he officially proclaimed March 6, 2012 “Edgemere Senior Center Day” in Baltimore County, Kamenetz went on to say that while there are changes in life, it’s most important to remember that the center exists for the residents to gather and, most importantly, it’s a community. Baltimore Council member John Olszewski, Sr. concurred that the Edgemere Senior Center is “not where people come to age, but where they come to stay young.”

In the early ‘60s, the exploratory senior center pilot program was the product of a new way thinking about getting older that proved the need for seniors to have a place of their own. Clearly, that need continues. BCDA’s 2010-2011 annual report states that in the preceding year membership rose 27 percent and participation increased 4 percent.

Although the need hasn’t changed, times have. Fifty years ago members successfully fought to keep the stigmatizing words, ‘senior center’ off the signage. Today, however, when members are asked about their preference, BCDA’s Director Williams says, “They are emphatic that ‘senior center’ remains in the name. They wear the word, ‘senior’ like a badge.”

Revised June 14, 2012

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