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Beyond Bingo: Senior Center Volunteers Reap Lifelong Learning

May 24, 2013 in Making a Difference


  • In seven years, this lifelong learning program grew from two classes at two sites to over 35 topics per semester at six senior centers and residences!
  • The classes have attracted thousands of older adults, including many who never before set foot in a senior center.


Welcome to our guest blogger, Pat Dowling from the Erie County RSVP, Erie County Department of Senior Services, NY. Pat answered the Call for What’s Working issued by the Aging Network’s Volunteer Collaborative in the spring of 2012, and her project was honored for its success. To learn more, download the Replication Guide.

Other than nursing homes, senior centers are the local institution most associated with older adults. Many young retirees/Boomers unfortunately perceive the senior center as a place that “old people” go, with cafeteria-style lunches and passive recreational and social activities.

A senior center’s monthly calendar of events usually features parties, outings, exercise or art classes, card games, or bingo. The participants interact primarily with one another, within the senior center, and are very much age-segregated. Trips or community activities usually involve taking a bus with other senior center members to a site, where they tour and dine together.

In our experience, most senior center calendars do not include opportunities for older adults to share their lifetime of skills and experience in the larger community. In fact, volunteer recruitment efforts at senior centers are often not very successful, although research proves that volunteers live longer, report better health and less depression, and have more social connections.

As the Boomers age, volunteering is a way to encourage these 77 million adults to stay active, involved, and healthy. How can we most effectively reach out to Boomers with an invitation to volunteer?

I propose a new model of senior center activity that connects older adults with one another—and connects older adults with the larger community beyond the walls of the senior center. This model adds lifelong learning and civic engagement to the current, long-standing components of nutrition, fitness, and recreation.

In this new model, older adults are seen not just as people who need to be nourished, exercised, and entertained, but as individuals who are valuable resources and providers for their local community, our nation, and the world. Active involvement is encouraged, whether through facilitated discussion on current events or through service activities.

For example, the senior center might sponsor a community gardening project, where volunteer master gardeners join older adults and other volunteers to transform vacant lots into pocket parks or vegetable plots to benefit the local food bank.

The senior center might host an “Earth Day” event with local environmental groups presenting issues of concern to that community. The day could include a service-learning project such as removing invasive species, followed by a reflection session.

The senior center might adopt a HeadStart program or elementary school a few hours a week, to tutor children who are struggling with reading or math or who need compassionate older adults to listen to their troubles and joys.

In addition to giving classes on china painting and bridge, senior centers could ask retired faculty or other professionals to give lectures on government, economics, environment, arts and culture, global affairs, medicine, science, and other topics to provide a forum for learning, discussion, questioning, and informed citizenship.

Erie County, NY, started a lifelong learning program seven years ago, with two classes at two sites, that has now grown to over 35 topics per semester at six senior centers and residences!

The classes have attracted thousands of older adults, including many who never before set foot in a senior center. The classes have become a primary way for RSVP to solicit new volunteers from the general public, and they have dramatically increased our name recognition in the general community. We expect to add a service-learning component in the coming semester.

Please share your ideas, thoughts, or questions in the Comments, below.

To learn more about Erie County’s University Express Program and how it engages seniors, download the project’s Replication Guide. To find even more ideas for your program, scroll through other Making a Difference posts.

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