Senior Center Research: Is the Phrase an Oxymoron?

Is research relevant to senior centers? Does the senior center field value research? Can senior centers apply research to their program and service delivery models?

The answer to all those questions is a resounding “YES”!

We know that the population of Americans aged 65 and over is rapidly expanding. Currently there are 33.9 million people (12.8% of the U.S. population) aged 65 and over living in the U.S. and this number is expected to grow to 70 million by 2030 (AARP, 2002). The National Institute of Senior Centers (2005) reports that there are currently 16,000 senior centers serving older adults in the US. In 1986, the National Center for Health Statistics estimated that 15% of all Americans aged 65 and over (roughly 4 million individuals) had attended a senior center in the past year. While there is no reliable data available currently, over 10 years ago, Krout (1998) estimated that nearly 10 million senior citizens utilize a senior center program or service annually.

Despite these rosy statistics, many senior center directors report an alarming drop in attendance rates among seniors. Other senior center directors complain about the lack of participation by “Boomers.” While some senior centers that have diversified programming and/or modernized facilities report an increase in participation, most senior centers report otherwise. The issue is further complicated by the decreasing public support for senior centers from federal, state, and municipal sources of funding. The dilemma we face is a Catch-22 situation—how do we attract greater numbers of older adults without modernizing and how do we modernize without adequate fiscal support?

Why research is important

The issue is further complicated by the fact that older adults today have greater choices and options for recreation, socialization, and aging-related services than ever before. If senior centers are to compete for greater attention and patronage in this new environment, we need to establish conclusively who we are and what we do.

Some of the questions we need to ask ourselves are:

  • What impact do we have on the seniors who do participate in our programs?
  • How do we influence and enrich the communities we serve?
  • How do we know that the programs or services we offer are effective?
  • How do we know that we are meeting the evolving needs of our target population?
  • What do senior center participants look like nationally?
  • How does the larger world perceive us and our role within the realm of aging services?

In order to answer these questions, we need reliable data and information. This data can only be provided through rigorous research and scientific exploration. The world of not-for-profit services has already latched onto the importance of outcome evaluation—that is, not to focus on what we offer, rather, the specific impact of what we offer on our consumers. Funding in the not-for-profit world is now intrinsically linked to the ability of agencies and organizations to demonstrate the impact of their services on the consumers of those services. The organization that makes the biggest impact in a community or generates the most excitement is generally the one that gets funded. Therefore, it is imperative for us professionals in the senior center field to keep abreast of what is going on in the world of research on aging and aging-related services.

Summary of senior center research

NISC has created a bibliography (or resource guide) of the most significant research studies conducted in or about senior centers in the last 20 years.

Just a cursory review of the guide yields some interesting and valuable topics:

  • Designing and offering evidence-based programs in a senior center
  • Integrating the young-elderly and the frail elderly in senior centers
  • The recreational and socialization patterns of older men
  • Marketing a new senior center to a community
  • Collaborating with universities on research projects related to senior centers
  • Impact of senior center participation on the mental health, cognitive skills, depression and social support among older adults
  • Innovations in recreational programming to attract new participants

The examples of studies listed above and many others can be extremely valuable to senior center professionals. You can utilize this research to:

  • Create new programming for your senior center
  • Develop new and innovative marketing plans to attract new participants (including “Boomers”)
  • Learn about the likes, dislikes, spending patterns, and changing needs of older adults
  • Establish beneficial partnerships with universities, community organizations, and foundations
  • Write effective grant applications (If you want to attract funders, you first have to establish the need and rationale for the program; and second, you have to demonstrate that your program will have a specific impact on the recipient. Therefore, you need documented research to establish the importance of senior centers and strengthen your appeal to funders—individuals and foundations).

As a former senior center director and a current researcher, I am passionate about the continued relevance of senior centers. NISC is committed to demonstrating the impact that our field has on the lives of older adults, as well as the community-at-large. But for us to be considered relevant and significant in the new millennium, we have to adopt the idea of evidence-based service models and cutting-edge aging research as an integral component of our planning efforts. Reading, assessing, and incorporating research into our daily operations is essential and critical to our continued growth and enrichment.

So please … give it a try, won’t ya?