Newington Senior and Disabled Center: Staying Flexible and Keeping It Creative to Meet Older Adults’ Needs

This blog post is part of a spotlight series featuring examples of programs and community design changes that get older adults moving. The posts were first published as part of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Midcourse Report: Implementation Strategies for Older Adults and highlight ways to apply strategies from the report in different settings.

At a glance

Who? Newington, Connecticut, Senior and Disabled Center

What? A safe and welcoming place for older adults and people with disabilities to get active, socialize, and learn new skills. 

Where can I learn more?

Getting regular physical activity is one of the most important steps that older adults can take to stay healthy and independent. And what better way to get active than in a fun community setting that combines social connectedness with evidence-based programs to improve health? That’s exactly what the Newington Senior and Disabled Center — and other senior centers across the country — strives to accomplish.

In the past, senior centers often focused mostly on activities to combat social isolation, says Jaime Trevethan, Director of the Newington Senior and Disabled Center. “The senior center was where you would go to play bingo, do your quilting club, and have lunch. But they’ve evolved to be much more than that — a sort of ‘one-stop shop’ to meet older adults’ needs, combining multiple resources to help people age successfully.” 

This includes offering people the chance to gain new skills and pursue various interests — Newington’s center, for example, has a computer lab, a volunteer-run organic garden, and a woodshop. But it also means helping people manage everyday challenges like filling out tax paperwork.

And, of course, it means focusing on physical activity as a key component of health. Newington’s center has a fully equipped fitness room and offers a variety of programs — from chair aerobics and an indoor Walk with Me program to tai chi, Zumba, and line dancing. In addition, instructors can modify all programs to fit people’s individual abilities and fitness levels.

Strategy: Address Barriers to Physical Activity Head-On

Offering a variety of flexible programs is just one part of the Newington Senior and Disabled Center’s approach. To successfully engage older adults, the center’s staff members know they need to address a main barrier for many older adults: the fear of falls and injuries.

“We want to help people overcome the fear of falling, which can be just as dangerous as actually falling because it makes them afraid to go out and be active,” Trevethan says. “So they’re not doing the things that could help lower their risk of falling — like physical activity — for fear of getting hurt.”

To address this, the center offers professional fall risk and balance assessments, as well as educational speaker sessions about balance, falls prevention, and home safety. Members can also enroll in 2 evidence-based falls prevention physical activity programs — Tai Ji Quan: Moving for Better Balance and A Matter of Balance. During any physical activity, the center’s professional staff teaches and encourages proper techniques and safety precautions.

The other main barrier Trevethan identifies isn’t unique to older adults: a lack of motivation to get active. But the center has a solution for that as well: “We try to make it fun,” Trevethan says. “We offer social fitness programs like Wii bowling, cornhole, and pickleball to engage people — and we are working on an evidence-based Bingocize program, which combines the ever-popular bingo with exercise.”

Impact: Benefits Beyond Physical Health

The Newington Senior and Disabled Center currently serves about 1,600 active members — a significant number in a town of just 30,000 people. With low membership fees of $5 to $10 a year, the center is very affordable — and it can waive the fee when cost is an issue. Most of the center’s funding comes out of the town’s annual budget. But the center also earns revenue through its volunteer-run coffee shop and gift shop, fundraisers, and member donations.

According to Trevethan, part of the center’s impact comes from leveraging connections with the community — like other Newington town departments, health care facilities, or the local college. Community partners offer certain services, such as balance assessments for older adults or presentations by expert speakers, free of charge. “It’s not just about physical or mental health,” Trevethan says. “It includes emotional, social, and spiritual health. We’re here to maintain all of those things.”

In addition, the center is 1 of only 7 senior centers in Connecticut to be accredited by the National Council on Aging’s National Institute of Senior Centers. This designation shows that the center is operating at the highest standards and keeps it at the forefront of new and innovative programming and funding opportunities. 

Key Takeaway: Adapting to Changing Needs Requires Keeping an Open Mind

When asked what advice she would give to other organizations trying to replicate the Newington Senior and Disabled Center’s success, Trevethan highlights the importance of being flexible and keeping an open mind.

“People are living longer and aging more successfully, which means you get a very diverse population — age-wise and in terms of personalities, interests, and needs — within that ‘older adults’ group. It’s important to be able to shift and accommodate those various needs.”

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