When her husband died 10 years ago, Leticia Galardo of Glen Cove retreated into her home. "I was depressed and my family kept telling me to get out and go to a senior center. But I said, 'No, only very old ladies go there.' "
But after seven years, loneliness drove her to check out the Glen Cove Senior Center.
"The first time I went, my life changed," says Galardo, who is 65. "I can exercise like never before. I cha-cha and tango, see movies, learn English for free, go to parties and yoga. I dress up and go there every day. And those senior citizens are friendly and have lots of energy. One of the people I cha-cha with is 92."
Galardo's initial rejection of the senior center is typical for her age group. They tend to think of the centers as a place where aging people receive inexpensive or free hot meals and socialize through sedentary activities like bingo. While those services still exist, Galardo's experience is more in line with a national movement to change senior centers so they accommodate a broader spectrum of needs for members whose ages can span 40 years or more. The result on Long Island is a mix of traditional centers that provide end-of-life programs and progressive centers that also offer everything from acting to Zumba aerobic classes.
Centers still focused on the '70s mission to provide nutrition and socialization to the elderly have to reconfigure what they offer, says Tobi A. Abramson, assistant professor in the Mental Health Counseling Program at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. "They can't cluster all the needs and interests of a 65-year-old with an 80-year-old," she says. "The newly retired are much more active, they're in better physical condition . . . traveling. They don't want chair exercises because they're still going to the gym."
Baby boomers a challenge
Gail Speranza, director of the Doubleday Babcock Senior Center in Oyster Bay, says baby boomers are a challenging group to accommodate because "they're very independent, used to choices. They don't want to be told that lunch is at noon. They want to schedule their exercise classes throughout the day."
At the same time, says Holly Rhodes-Teague, director of the Suffolk County Office for the Aging in Hauppauge, there's still a need to provide traditional services to the older population and younger seniors with special needs.
But if the image problem continues, boomers and seniors who could use the centers won't seek the services provided, says Rhodes-Teague. "No one perceives themselves as needing a center, but unless we utilize them, they will eventually have to close their doors."
And that can have long-term consequences that are of national concern as well. Jill Jackson-Leford, a spokeswoman for the National Council on Aging in Washington, D.C., says discussions about senior centers are part of health-care reform, and there's a "raging debate nationally to take the name 'senior' out because it doesn't resonate with baby boomers."
What's more important, says Jackson-Leford, is what the centers offer. "Senior centers need to change what they do or they'll become obsolete. Yet, they have an important role: to prevent or monitor illness, to keep people healthier and decrease chronic conditions by staying fit and ultimately to save on health care."
Attracting younger seniors
For instance, at Doubleday Babcock, whose members range in age from early 50s to 102, there are brain games, a weekend jazz cafe, computer classes, 17 exercise programs including belly dancing, strength training and a gym. "We also have an adult day care center in a separate location down the street for the frail elderly," Speranza says.
It was the fitness center that attracted Liz Orth of Bayville, 63, to the Oyster Bay facility. "And then I found I was taking aerobics and yoga classes with people my age and even in their 80s," Orth says. "So many people avoid it, but a senior center is a place to be with your peers, especially when you retire and you don't see the people you worked with anymore. It's what you make of it. If you don't like it, you can move on. I hope to age in place, so when I need services, I can get them there."
And there's value to being with older seniors as well, says Ben Antinori, 65, who retired two years ago and volunteers at the Hampton Bays Senior Center. "I stay for lunch three days a week and have taken advantage of services like blood pressure screening and flu shots. Volunteering there keeps me young, and the older people are so vital - they're wonderful role models of aging. They show me how important it is to stay involved in the community, and even though I don't necessarily need the services yet, I feel comfortable knowing they're there."
And that's one of the main goals of attracting younger seniors, says Pamela Giacoia, director of Senior Services for the Town of Southampton. "We offer classes, trips, line dancing, book discussions and lectures, a residential repair program, wellness series and even a senior acting troupe," Giacoia says. "But so many times people don't know it's there until their caregivers come in and they're in a crisis. Why wait until then? If you knew what we have, we could have helped all along."