The Value of Senior Centers for People Who Are Visually Impaired

Editor’s note: This month is National Senior Center Month. Enjoy this post and consider trying out your local center!

Cover of SiteWise Community Centers Super Suggestions with picture of seniors painting
SiteWise Super Suggestions for Community Centers flyer

My Visit to a Senior Center

“Bingo! I won!” squeals an elderly woman from somewhere in the back of the room. She waves her arm back and forth in case the caller doesn’t see her hand.

“Wait to clear your cards until we find out if it’s a genuine winner,” calls out a gentleman seated at a table in front. After the woman reads the appropriate number on her card, the man says, “Joyce, this seems to be your lucky week. Come on up and choose your prize.”

She moves like a dynamo to claim her winnings. With a broad smile, Joyce points to the left-hand side of the table. “I’ll take that.”

I’m unsure of what is available or what she selects due to my limited vision but when she arrives back at her seat, I hear her table mates ooh and ah over her prize. The next round quickly starts. Bingo clearly takes center stage for the moment at this senior center.

I visit many such centers in northwest Pennsylvania where I live, providing encouragement, practical tips, and a list of resources to help members cope with any vision loss they might have. It’s sometimes macular degeneration or a torn retina. Often, it’s simply harder to see due to the aging process.

The management usually extends an invitation to eat lunch with their community afterward. On this particular occasion, Bingo starts up immediately after the food is cleared away, giving me a glimpse of the community’s popular afternoon schedule.

What Exactly Is a Senior Center?

Senior centers — or "senior citizen centers" as they’re sometimes called — provide a common facility designed to increase interaction not only between the typical elderly individual one imagines to find there but also to anyone age 55+. In the United States, there are nearly 11,500 community centers where over a million seniors meet daily, weekly, and monthly. Some are funded locally and others through federal sources under the Older Americans Act. These are free and many provide transportation.

Other types of senior centers are live-in communities. These can be independent living centers, where the residents can manage on their own. Members of the community typically live in self-contained apartments. Or, they could be assisted living centers, where residents require more focused assistance due to more serious health care needs that need monitoring.

What Senior Centers Offer

While some senior centers do focus on hot meals and typical game-like activities such as Bingo and occasional shopping outings, others offer a wide assortment of programs and services that include meals, health, fitness, educational and volunteer opportunities, job training, computer labs, bowling, transportation, and outings to museums, art exhibitions, and other events.

An Example of Senior Center Programming

Melissa Beahm, former director of Niagara Village, an independent living community in Erie, Pennsylvania, now travels around the United States along with her husband. They still minister to the senior community, performing their musical comedy variety shows.

Melissa in a glittery hat and clown nose with her husband Larry in a sparkling vest performing their comedy show.
Melissa and Larry performing their comedy show

Melissa says, "We play gigs primarily to senior centers but also to 55+ communities, RV Parks, and churches." She observes, "From my experience, one of the main functions of senior centers across the country is the gathering together for a healthy and thrifty hot meal. What they do and how much they spend seems to vary little based on any area of the country…Some just… don’t put any money out for anything other than their food program. They say it’s all they can do." She added, "However, many centers also offer their weekday visitors many socialization and learning opportunities."

On the other hand, Lifeworks, an outreach of a Lake Erie Community of Osteopathic Medicine, a local training hospital, offers a mosaic of presentations at their three facilities. They include summer and fall programs with about 50 topics that range in interest from cooking with herbs to Fur-Babies for the Soul as well as the Philharmonic, digital photography, and enjoying ham radios. They also provide walking programs and health and wellness activities.

Accessibility for People with Vision Loss

Accessibility for people who are visually impaired seems to be more of an issue with walk-in senior centers rather than communities where residents live. While they are all accessible for wheelchairs, I haven’t seen any special accommodations for people with vision loss in the senior centers I’ve visited during my talks. However, the director has always been more than kind in offering help to me. I am certain the same help is offered to anyone else who may have any level of vision impairment and asks for help.

Lisa Reynolds, director of activities at Erie West Senior Center shares, "We currently do not have any specific accommodation in place, specifically for those with vision loss. We approach each member on a case-by-case basis and provide any assistance one requires."

Beahm reinforces an attitude of caring. "It’s like that in each place, exactly as Lisa says. And I do know the community gathers together and learns to be aware of what a person who is visually impaired needs or doesn’t need. All the communities we’ve been in have had large print books (usually donated by the library or individuals) along with VHS, DVDs, and CDs to listen to. The activity director works with each member to find out what he or she wants to do and tries to make it happen."

She describes her experience with a blind resident at Niagara Village. The resident was already living there when she and her husband took over the management. The woman had already established her "place" in the community. She had friends to help her anytime she needed. She knew her way from her apartment to the dining room and always sat in the same seat, just inside the doorway with her three closest friends. She feels the woman gained a lot from being part of the community and seemed well-adjusted, contributing to the activities and participating along with her sighted companions.

The only challenge I’ve encountered in any of the senior centers where I’ve given talks has been in navigating my cane through tight quarters, making my way around chairs and tables. Staff and seniors have always carried my tray of food and beverage so I can concentrate on navigating safely through the room.

A staff member of Westminster at Parkdale describes the types of accommodations for their live-in residents with vision loss. They take members of their community to various institutions for eye exams, including low vision exams at our state-of-the-art Sight Center. They provide additional lighting when a need arises, alternate ways to identify stove tops and other articles, etc. Of course, this senior residential community is more costly than some others in the area. But I really appreciate the thought that goes into creating accommodation for residents who are visually impaired.

Melissa sitting with her mom at a senior center

Benefits of Going to A Senior Center

There are many benefits for people who are visually to seek out a senior center, especially in terms of community support and available services that will help them live healthy, independent lives. In the words of Lynda Lambert, a blind freelance writer and artist, "I can attest to the value of senior centers for I go to my local Challenges center every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I use the gym and have lunch there each time I go. On Wednesday, I attend the knitting group. It’s a great place for friendships, socializing, and activities."

It’s encouraging to learn that senior centers are doing more to reach out to those who are isolated due to vision loss, lack of mobility and transport, and economic situations.

As Beahm says, "The benefits of being in a safe, friendly environment with people in charge who are there to make things the best they can be for everyone far outweigh the negatives. It’s a super environment in which to flourish — so many new experiences are available at your fingertips."

Finally, I am always for building bridges and changing society’s expectations of and for people who are visually impaired. If there aren’t currently accommodations, let’s speak up and tell senior centers what’s needed to enable us to better fit in to the centers. Whether it’s something physical like more lighting, audio description services, activities in braille or large print, human guides, open discussions of emotional needs such as through support groups, transportation — whatever the case may be, let’s bring that information to the table and continue to change our communities for seniors who are visually impaired.

Additional Information

Super Suggestions for Making Communities Senior and Vision-Friendly

Recreational Activities

Playing Bingo After Vision Loss

Support Groups and Other Resources