Nothing retiring about retirement. Senior-citizen centers, like the one in Milton, Fla., provide older Americans with hot meals -- as well as activity and companionship
MOST of the 60 or so older Americans in the hall are singing: ``Count your blessings, one by one.'' Few use hymnals; they know the verses by heart. Some of the voices are off key. But there is no shortage of enthusiasm as they belt out one hymn after another, led by an elderly pianist and several elderly singers.Skip to next paragraph
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This is not a church meeting. It's one of the daily events at the senior center in this rural town in the Florida panhandle. Soon, a hot lunch will be served.
But senior centers like this one offer ``much more than a hot meal,'' says Bob Cosby, coordinator of the National Institute of Senior Centers, a part of the National Council on the Aging. They also provide recreation, exercise, lectures, and, most of all, companionship and friendship.
Each day, 3 million to 4 million older Americans across the nation go to a local senior center. Of about 8,000 centers in the United States, many also offer medical assistance, physical therapy, transportation, and calls to shut-ins, Mr. Cosby says.
The centers are a way for older Americans to stay more active, get out of their homes once a day, and have fun. Many come looking for companions, someone special in their life, he says.
``A lot of people can't afford a condominium-type environment,'' Cosby says. Senior centers offer a cheaper alternative for activity and social contact, although they are open to people of all income levels.
The nutritional programs at senior centers are federally funded, too, but the number of centers is much fewer than he'd like to see, Cosby says. Meals are free, but diners are asked to make a small donation. In Milton, where many participants live on low incomes, donations range from a few pennies to an occasional $20 bill.
The seniors here, seated on metal folding chairs at long tables, drink refreshments from disposable cups. Three overhead fans help fight the heat. The crowd is integrated in an area that, like many places, at one time saw few interracial gatherings.
``It just suits me here,'' says K. Novie Strickland, 83, a former farmer from Alabama dressed in clean, blue coveralls. ``I'm happy. I have plenty to eat. I'm here among my friends; I make friends.'' A few minutes earlier he'd sliced a piece of onion and laid it beside the lunch plate of Minnie Rivenbark, who likes onion with her meals.
James Duncan, a retired carpenter, takes a seat at a table and introduces himself to a visitor. ``You'll find this is a joyous crowd, a clean crowd,'' he says. ``You ought to come to one of our senior-citizen dances. I average two dances a week.''
Senior centers can be a catalyst for older people to get out of the house, experts say. The center in Milton has helped some formerly home-bound people become active, by offering free transportation to and from the center, says Ann Spencer, executive director of the Santa Rosa County Council on Aging, which sponsors the center.
It gives the participants ``something to get up for,'' says Betty Taylor, senior- center director. ``Otherwise, they sit around in their nightgowns.''
Lizzie Jenkins, 83, has the opposite problem. She's so busy that she's supposed to be two places in one night. She sings with a local chorus and a regional chorus, and both are meeting the same evening.
Mrs. Jenkins is also a pastor's aide at her church and is active at the senior center in Milton.
``I'm into everything I can to keep me going,'' she says. ``I just love being with people. I can't, just can't sit down and do nothing.''
She claims some credit for helping break down social barriers between blacks and whites at the senior center, by encouraging people in ``loving one another.''
Mrs. Jenkins, who is separated from her husband, has just returned home from her regular weekday visit to the senior center. Today was her shopping day, and a driver from the center took her and two of her friends to and from a local mall.