September is National Senior Center Month. It is a time to celebrate the essential programs, activities, services, and benefits offered to aging individuals, their caregivers, and communities. It is also a time to safeguard these programs and envision future possibilities.
Senior centers were created in 1965 as part of the Older Americans Act (OAA) to allow seniors to remain independent and engaged citizens. Although the primary focus of the OAA is to help low-income individuals and people living in rural areas, centers are open to everyone 60 and older. As with all communities, senior centers are strongest with cultural, social, and economic diversity.
Seniors make up 16.5% of New Mexico’s population (12.9% is the national average) and 26.1% of Grant County’s. According to the US Census Bureau, by 2030, New Mexico will have the 4th largest percentage of people 65 and older (up from 39th in 2000).
As more people are becoming seniors and more research is showing the health benefits of social interactions, exercise, learning, music, and dance, it would seem logical that senior centers would expand their offerings. Many across the country and state are, although in Grant County the opposite appears to be true.
We are fortunate in New Mexico for many reasons including that the state is identifying and addressing current and future concerns. According to New Mexico’s Deputy Secretary Kyky Knowles, Acting Cabinet Secretary, who leads the Aging and Long-Term Services Department, “Our mission is beyond critical. We will keep going, keep working, and keep caring no matter what challenges come our way.”
Last month I attended the New Mexico Conference on Aging and was introduced to people and programs from around the state. Many senior centers are responding to their communities by offering a variety of programs. Ruidoso, for example, a town of fewer than 8,000 people offers exercise classes five days a week, Bridge and other organized games, Spanish classes, art classes, needlecraft three times a week, computer help, and dance classes. Taos, a town of fewer than 6,000 people also offers exercise classes five days a week and transportation to and from their senior center and to doctors, the library, shopping, and cultural events. Pecos, with fewer than 1,500 residents is open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., serves breakfast and lunch and has regular Tai Chi and exercise classes.
While many programs and services are expanding, some are not. The standard explanation for cuts in services when the opposite is needed is that there is not enough money available. My response is to quote the National Council on Aging. “To maintain operations, senior centers must leverage resources from a variety of sources. These include federal, state, and local governments; special events; public and private grants; businesses; bequests; participant contributions; in-kind donations; and volunteer hours. Most centers rely on 3 to 8 different funding sources.” Additional funds are possible.
My last article talked about the significant benefits of bingo. I have enjoyed lunch and bingo at my senior center, and I’m happy to report that my pool game is improving. I now can pretty consistently hit the cue ball every try. I have been known to pocket two balls in a row and have even sunk the winning 8-ball when I played doubles with a talented partner. However, senior centers must go beyond bingo and meals (and even pool) to meet the needs of a rapidly growing and diverse senior community.
The types of services offered by senior centers are only limited by the vision and commitment of each community. Any program that can prevent or delay costly medical and institutional care and allow for more active community involvement will benefit not only the participating individuals but society as a whole.
I am hopeful that our senior community and other vulnerable groups will be honored and protected during these times of intense growth. I base that hope on the many committed individuals and organizations in our community and our state’s commitment that:
New Mexico’s older adults and adults with disabilities have the right to remain active participants in their communities, to age with respect and dignity, to be protected from abuse, neglect, and exploitation and to have equal access to health care.
New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department