Aging With Grace

By Randy Gaddo

There is a subtle but continuing challenge to describe what is generally referred to as a “senior center.” For that matter, what do we call people who go there: senior citizens, older adults, older Americans, or just adults? After all, we don’t say “junior citizens,” so why would we say “senior citizens?”

The facility can be called a senior center, enrichment center, older adult activity center, or nothing at all and simply be named “The Bridge” or “Recreation Center.” However, these facilities have become one of the most widely used parks and rec services among America’s burgeoning population of Baby Boomers—people born between 1946 and 1964.

“Activity” is the operative word in these centers as demand has expanded beyond the passive activities of previous generations, such as bingo or card playing, to more mobile activities such as dance and exercise. This expanded and multi-faceted use of these centers also carries an expanded need for more aggressive maintenance practices.

Officials at the National Council on Aging (NCOA)/National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) note that there are 11,400 senior centers (the term used on its website, in the U.S. that serve more than one-million older adults daily. The Older Americans Act recognizes that senior centers have become a community asset.

“A senior center’s appearance has a significant impact on its ability to function as a community focal point for older adults,” reads the Self-Assessment and Accreditation Manual under its “facility and operations” chapter. Developed in 1978 and updated several times since, NCOA/NISC’s manual offers the nation’s only National Senior Center Accreditation Program. 

There is a chapter, surprisingly short, that addresses the importance of proper maintenance of a center.  It focuses on the premise that a center should provide for the health, safety, and comfort of participants, staff members, and community. Properly maintaining a senior center contributes significantly to that goal.

“In our workbook material we ask the staff at the center applying for certification to review the maintenance and cleaning schedule for appropriateness, considering the participants’ use of the building, size of the building, age of the building, and availability of financial and human resources, and to suggest any changes that might need to be made,” says Maureen O’Leary, NISC Program Manager at NCOA. “We ask that the center staff include the preventive-maintenance schedule in the accreditation notebook. An accreditation prospect must have safety and maintenance procedures in place to be accredited.”

Casting A Wider Net
Senior centers that previously have been reserved for only a single generation of older people are now serving a broader audience. “It is highly feasible that the population at a senior center will include participants from two generations … it will be necessary to have environments that are comfortable for both generations,” as stated in the manual.

The two generations noted are “The Greatest Generation,” which includes people in their mid-70s or older; and “Baby Boomers,” who range in age from the early 50s to early 70s. The first group will generally be less active and require more passive activities, while the second group is more apt to want plenty of movement and activity.  There are, of course, exceptions in both groups.

Those responsible for maintaining senior centers should be mindful that the users will have a wide spectrum of physical mobility, hearing, sight, and balance that can be adversely affected by improper maintenance. 

For example, a loose tile might seem insignificant in the scheme of daily maintenance duties, but if a user with poor eyesight or shaky balance trips on the tile, it suddenly becomes a big issue; burnt-out light bulbs may not bother some of the younger users but can drastically impact the enjoyment or safety of less-able patrons; a wobbly chair leg might be inconvenient for some but could mean a harmful fall for others.

In addition to providing for older adults, many senior centers are now are being used at other times for general programming.  They are, after all, “recreation facilities,” so in an attempt to provide ample programming space and generate revenue without having to build more facilities, the buildings are even being rented out for parties, weddings, meetings, and other public or private events.

With all of this additional activity, the facilities are getting more intense use, which calls for more intense maintenance. In many cases, that maintenance must be performed either while people are using the facility (which can be disruptive to programming) or after hours to avoid disrupting activities.

However, while more focused maintenance is called for due to increased use, budgets and staffing don’t always keep pace with that need. Often, the parks and rec maintenance crew tasked with caring for a senior center is the same crew that has ball fields, fieldhouses, swimming pools, and myriad other recreation facilities and grounds to look after.

Considering Accreditation
The NISC accreditation manual does address both budget and staffing, in a general way. Item number 8 on a list of 15 different focal areas states, “Maintenance and cleaning staff should be sufficient to maintain a clean, sanitary, and safe facility.” Item number 13 requires that “a sufficient budget for maintenance, replacement of furnishings, and upkeep of the building shall be planned.” Of course, the accreditation process requires ample documentation to validate these actions.

To learn more about NISC accreditation of senior centers, go to There is ample contact information for those who may be interested. It is a fairly new process, with only about 200 centers being accredited nationally, with many more in the process.

Why look at accreditation? The NISC website notes, “During the self-assessment process, staff, participants, board members, aging service-agency representatives, and the community come together to look at the senior center and compare it to the standards that have been established by NISC. Together, the center and the community identify strengths and areas that need improvement and develop a strategy. Many centers report that this has led to funding opportunities, new collaborative partners, and an increase in programs or participation.”

Dr. A. Eugene Smiley, NISC past-chair, promotes the process, saying in a testimonial, “It portrays the senior center in a positive light in terms of being a viable, fundable, and qualified provider of services within the community.”

Appropriate Design
The constant pull between senior-center usage and proper maintenance time was highlighted when NISC recently asked senior-center directors to share their thoughts on innovative design improvements. 

As reported in an article on the NCOA website, the responses ranged from wanting adequate space that doesn’t have to do double and triple duty to others that envisioned indoor walking tracks, fully-equipped fitness centers, and warm-water therapy pools. There is a wide span of different maintenance requirements between these extremes.

Douglas J. Gallow Jr., an architect who specializes in senior centers, wrote the article and noted that the directors’ responses “reflected the tremendous variation within this dynamic industry.” Directors were able to “ask the architect” questions about their concerns.

Galloway says that, whether looking to improve an existing building or to build a new one, there are architectural principles and processes that will lead to more efficient buildings and thus ones more easily maintained.

One of the most problematic and controversial issues that Galloway heard about from directors was flooring. “With falls a major health issue for older adults (and thus a major concern for facility directors), I am frequently asked for advice on this subject,” says Galloway, who is co-founder of Lifespan Design Studio. “The fact is this is a serious and sobering issue with no fail-safe solutions.”

A key consideration is to ensure that the type of flooring chosen should be based on its intended use; no matter what is chosen, close attention to proper maintenance is critical to its longevity and safety.

Generally, the fewer differences there are in flooring types within a facility, the less chance for trip hazards; however, that isn’t always possible because senior centers are used for a variety of purposes by different groups. Transitioning from one type of surface to another can create a trip hazard. A reading room may be more comfortable with carpet, but a dining room is better with wood or synthetic-wood flooring. The transition between the two can become a trip hazard, especially if it isn’t watched carefully to ensure it stays tight.

“On a positive note, this issue is the subject of a great deal of study by leaders in the carpeting and hard-surface flooring industries, as both seek to develop slip- and trip-resistant hybrid products with the acoustical, aesthetic, warmth/comfort, and non-glare benefits of carpet, and the durability, hygienic/maintenance, and navigability benefits of hard flooring,” says Galloway.

The appropriate design, installation, and maintenance of flooring products are just as important as their selection. “If your facility will involve a variety of flooring products, the transitions (and design of the spaces themselves) should be planned to promote awareness and safe passage from one space into another,” he says. “In new construction, recessing the sub floor to make up differences in the thickness of various products may provide for a level surface without the need for raised transition strips. In areas of particular concern, look for ways to provide additional supports for safe navigation, such as decorative handrails and enhanced lighting.”

User-Friendliness For All
As parks and rec professionals continue to provide safe and well-maintained facilities for today’s older citizens, Galloway believes that the senior center of the future will be a more deliberately and insightfully designed place.

“As the financial resources that will accompany the aging of the Baby Boomer generation become available, senior centers will become better able to renovate existing buildings or build new ones to ‘universal’ standards to ensure their user-friendliness. In time, senior centers may be looked to as innovators and leaders in the design of spaces custom-tailored to the needs and preferences of active older adults.”

In the process, let’s hope that parks and rec maintenance professionals are given ample opportunity for input at the front end of those design plans, to make sure that the facilities are built with future maintenance in mind so seniors and their facilities can age gracefully together.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email