On any given day at Washington Park Senior Center, community members can be found piecing together a puzzle, dropping in for a quick Zumba exercise class or challenging others to a Wii video game.
“I think people really find these places to be of great value,” said Lorrie Pardo, manager at the center.
However, the days of large, more traditional senior centers may be dwindling.
Officials estimate by 2022, the five county-owned senior center facilities in Milwaukee will need to be replaced for the combined costs of around $24 million. The county currently pays $1.1 million annually to service these centers.
The potential cost of these new facilities has prompted the Milwaukee County Department on Aging, which funds and oversees the centers, to investigate possible alternatives for providing senior center programming and infrastructure in the coming years.
A Wisconsin Policy Forum report released this week examined senior center models of five peer counties, mostly in the Midwest, to provide examples of funding, program priorities and processes that could offer Milwaukee policy-makers and residents insights on the issue.
“It’s a highly political issue,” said Wisconsin Policy Forum researcher Sue Moeser, who worked on the report. “The seniors that go to the senior centers love their centers and they don’t want them taken away.”
Despite Milwaukee’s senior population steadily increasing, attendance at the centers has declined in recent years and sits around 4 percent of the county’s estimated 172,000 seniors in 2018.
The five centers, all located within county parks, are Clinton Rose, Kelly, McGovern, Washington and Wilson. The combined annual attendance is 6,608 individuals. The centers are from 35 to 61 years old.
The report found that given the cost, one of the most difficult options would be for the county to continue to pay for and operate large facilities that are exclusively meant for older adult services.
“I have to say over the years we have lost quite a few of our individuals who would spend the majority of their day here,” Pardo said.
A move to multigenerational approaches
Reassessing the use of senior centers means looking for the most effective ways to increase accessibility to services surrounding wellness and nutrition, transportation, work and volunteer opportunities.
Although other counties offered different approaches to prioritizing the needs of older adults, this multigenerational approach reflects a shift in demographic changes that’s part of a national trend.
Census Bureau reports show older adults are living longer, are more educated and have higher incomes.
“They’re more conscious of the environment, of politics, of the health of the community,” Pardo said.
This shift has created three distinct cohorts of older adults that have different needs.
Moeser said the people who retire at 55-60 are young and often still want to give to their community, travel or work. “Then you’ve got on the other end, the frail elderly who probably need help and then you’ve got the ones that are kind of in between and they have really different needs,” she said.
How other counties do it
Arlington County in Virginia, the only other county-run model in the report, uses a multigenerational approach.
Allegheny County in Pennsylvania has a performance- based contracting system where senior center facilities and services are consolidated into low-cost spaces.
“They are putting senior centers in storefronts in strip malls and pay a dollar a year for it,” Moeser said. Other spaces such as schools or churches are also utilized.
Dane County in Wisconsin prioritized focal points for services such as nutrition or adult day care where contracted service agencies are responsible for providing and maintaining their own facilities.
In Franklin County Ohio, local municipalities run senior centers and provide framework for programs for older adult services.
In Hennepin County Minnesota, senior center facilities are not central for services. The county uses a statewide senior call line that connects residents with providers that follows up to ensure seniors are being served.
Milwaukee County has a similar 211 social services hotline and senior center staff can help connect the older population with services as well.
Sally Stanton says
I love the county senior centers. I have taught classes at many of them, and patronized several of them myself. I don’t think the answer is to do away with them completely. The folks who go to the centers form a community and to eliminate that important community meeting place is short-sighted. Unfortunately, “senior centers” have an image/marketing problem. Younger people think they are just for old folks to sit around and knit, shoot the bull, or play shuffleboard. They don’t want to be associated with anything “senior” – aging is still very stigmatized in our mainstream culture. They cannot picture themselves there. One friend told me it would be “depressing” to be around all “those old people.” Why? Because younger people bristle when they hear the word “senior” and don’t want to accept that it might apply to them…but without them, yes, it is often the fragile, older elders who make most use of the centers. And…the hours – typically 8:30 – 4:30 M-F — makes it difficult or impossible for younger, still working seniors to participate in activities at the centers. If classes and fitness centers were open in the evenings and on Saturdays, younger seniors might use them. There might be a graduated fee system so that those who are still working could pay higher fees and help subsidize them. The buildings are also old and I am sure they are challenging to maintain. If billions can be donated in hours to restore the Cathedral of Notre Dame, why won’t philanthropists step up to fund high-quality services for our aging population? Would you go to a yoga class where the floor is stained and warped, the room is either too hot or too cold, or it’s too big or too small? Why do we relegate seniors to second-best? Shouldn’t they be able to practice yoga in a beautiful, relaxing space or take a dance class on a good quality dance floor? I think the Dept on Aging might look at intergenerational models such as the St. Ann Centers, which combine child care and care for those with disabilities into their programs. But don’t limit these centers to just babies and elders. Open it up to be a true community center – offer programming for school holidays, offer market fee-based programming to younger seniors and non-seniors, think broadly. I hope the Dept on Aging and the County Board will go to the Senior Centers and ASK the users/participants what they think could be done to build attendance and grow the programming. What do seniors want that they aren’t able to access at the center? How can the centers remove the stigma of “senior”? What would bring in folks who can afford to pay for services that could create a revenue stream to help support the centers? Don’t just talk of shutting them down or decentralizing services. Work WITH the community to find a solution. The folks who come to these centers are often our community’s most vulnerable people. Let’s not abandon them. But we need to also bring in those who aren’t, to build bridges and understanding. It’s time to think differently about aging and it’s everyone’s responsibility – if we are all fortunate, we will all become seniors one day!
Dan O'Keefe says
I read the complete Wisconsin Policy Forum Report. One comment in the report stuck out, which I will paraphrase “the five counties analyzed had distinctly different approaches, encouraged by the open ended guidelines set up by the federal legislation”. Having said that I hope the study groups make the effort to understand who uses the senior center in Milwaukee County and why. Without that information, any approach forward would seem to be would not be “evidence based” in the fullest sense of “evidence based.”