Catherine Brown believes that her job saves lives, but she doesn’t work in an emergency room. As the Director of the West Oak Lane Older Adult Center in Philadelphia, Brown coordinates activities that help older adults connect with each other. Together with her staff, Brown encourages social interaction in a population that often feels alone.
Loneliness can affect your mental and physical health. Studies show that loneliness increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes. It increases your risk of stroke by 32 percent and your risk of dementia by 50 percent.
But the West Oak Lane Older Adult Center participants are too busy dancing, playing cards, shooting pool, and talking with friends to worry about that.
Older adult community centers help reduce loneliness. They offer a place to connect with others through a variety of fun, engaging activities. “Our place is beautiful and inviting,” Brown says. “People can check their issues at the door, come in, and have a good time. Having purpose every day, getting up and going to something you enjoy keeps the blues away.”
Something for Everyone
Philadelphia Parks & Recreation operates six older adult centers in the city. These centers are open to adults 55 years of age and older. On any given day, more than 100 people come to the West Oak Lane Older Adult Center. Each center has a schedule of activities that reflect the culture of the community. Brown encourages members to share their talents with each other and start clubs based on common interests.
“We have a sewing class where they make their own clothes. We did a Black History Month program where they made African head wraps and did a fashion show of what they made during the year. Some have started jewelry and crafting businesses,” Brown says.
The Next Part of Life
At work, people talk to each other, so connections form easily. But when people retire, those daily interactions are lost. For many older adults, retirement comes with different emotions. What often starts as excitement can turn to sadness, boredom, or loneliness. Brown adds, “If we’re not careful, that loneliness starts to feel heavy, like depression and its friend anxiety. We must get out and figure out what’s the next part of life.”
The West Oak Lane Older Adult Center helps people make new connections. “When people know that someone else cares, that someone literally has eyes on [them], they feel that [they are] going to be okay because [they are] interacting with another human. That in and of itself wakes up their happy, it wakes up their connection to others,” Brown says.
A Second Home
David Powell of Wyncote says the center gives him an opportunity to relax. “I am a Vietnam veteran, and I suffer from post‑traumatic stress,” he says. “So, it really helped my mental health a lot. You know, just being here around good people, happy people.”
Lafayette Daily, 91, of North Philadelphia agrees. “This is my second home. I just like the atmosphere. I like the folks here. It’s just a nice place to be.” He’s been coming to the center since 1997 and enjoys playing pool, cards, and checkers. “Coming to the senior center makes my day. Day in and day out. I just wish it was [open] more than five days [a week].”
Brown experienced first-hand the powerful difference the center can make on someone’s life.
“My mother was a beautician who had depression since childhood,” Brown says. “After a while, she stopped taking her medicine and bottomed out. I was able to bring her here and she came back around, got involved with chair exercise, and slowly but surely, she got her confidence back to drive. She went on a picnic, we played volleyball, and she sat at the card tables. After that, she would come on Mondays for lunch. So, when I say, ‘this place saves lives’, I know.”
Not Just Fun and Games
Older adult community centers are a lifeline for connection and support, with fun activities that can improve the physical, mental, and social well-being of older adults. Many centers also offer a wide range of services like meal programs, transportation assistance, public benefits counseling, and volunteer opportunities. Older adults can get more information about community centers in their area and the vital services they provide by checking out their state’s Department of Aging website.
For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.