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The Ripple Effects of Senior Centers

Words and actions can be like ripples on a pond, quietly changing hearts and minds. When former NCOA President and CEO Jim Firman announced his retirement last winter, he reminded us that time is the one thing you want more of as you get older—time to focus your energy on the things that matter the most. I wanted that, too. As I listened to Jim, I read a postcard on my desk with a quote from Maya Angelou: “Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it.” I asked, and my request was granted. Beginning September 14, leadership of the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) will be passed to new staff members and I’ll focus on national senior center accreditation as a consultant.

Reflecting on 13 years at NCOA, the driving force behind any success I’ve had is the commitment and caliber of senior center professionals who shared their expertise, time, and passion by volunteering for NISC.

Take on ageism

An early NISC volunteer, Leo Laks, helped developed the Brooklyn Center, a project encouraging older women to remain in or return to the mainstream of community life. In 1962 he chaired the committee that preceded the development of NISC. In 1970 he was elected as the first NISC Chair. Leo knew the ageism barrier must be broken, hoping that “as the community begins to recognize the value of its aging citizens, attitudes toward them should change and become more positive.”

Today, the fight against ageism continues with leaders like Tracey Colagrossi and Lynn Fields Harris. In 2018, we asked Tracy and Lynn if they’d like to attend the Frameworks Institute workshop to reframe the conversation around aging. They did, and continued educating at other conferences. Tracey also shared how she laid the groundwork for change at her center by training her staff, educating her participants, and keeping an eye on how her center was perceived in the community.

Advocate for and in your community

Jim Firman wrote about ways senior centers could transform themselves. He promoted combining service with advocacy to promote positive change. Senior centers know the most about the needs of older adults in their community. They should be the most credible and trusted voice on many issues.

Dr. Manoj Pardasani who shared his voice to prevent cuts to funding in New York City. Along with others like Christine Beatty, who advocated for inclusivity at her center and created an LGBT Senior Alliance, Beverly Ferry, who fought to end local hunger, and Sue Getman, an advocate for aging with financial security.

Mimicry is the greatest form of flattery

Senior Center professionals are good at sharing—and borrowing—great ideas. In 2011, Jill Hall, NISC Chair Elect, created the Programs of Excellence Awards competition. Since then, 765 entries have been submitted. The competition is open now and features a broad range of categories, including virtual programming. COVID-19 makes the innovative ideas developed at senior centers more important than ever. As you develop programming to see your community through these challenging times, please share them by November 20, 2020.

Make new ripples

I’ve only mentioned a few of the impressive individuals who have devoted their skills to the belief that a national organization of senior center professionals is needed to elevate all senior centers. As we celebrate National Senior Center Month and the theme Senior Centers: Delivering Vital Connections, consider what role you might play. How can your actions influence your colleagues’ hearts and minds?

NISC has small teams that work to advance senior centers nationally. Volunteer to share your expertise in areas such as Best Practices, Economic Security, Improving Health, Public Policy and National Accreditation. We are looking for perspectives from people with all levels of experience.

Another way to have statewide impact is to volunteer as a NISC Senior Center Leadership Collaborative member. This is a small group of appointed, state leaders who share promising practices from their state, learn from other state leaders and about NCOA initiatives and communicate that information back to their state colleagues.

For more information on NISC volunteer opportunities, email us.

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About Maureen O’Leary, NISC Program Manager

Maureen O'Leary has been Program Manager for NCOA's National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) since 2007.