New Type of Senior Citizens Centers Emphasize Cafe Society, Conversation

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • One of the often-cited recommendations concerning fending off Alzheimer's disease is the need to stay engaged with people. In fact,'s Health Alert reported in early January 2008 that a University of Michigan study found that 10 minutes of chatting, either face to face or by phone, does as much to improve memory and boost brainpower as working crossword puzzles.


    In this study, researchers surveyed over 3,500 people, ages 24 to 96, about their social interactions, then tested their memories. They found that the more social contact people had, the higher their mental function.


    The researchers also divided 76 college students into three groups. The first group spent 10 minutes alone doing intellectual exercises such as reading comprehension, while the second group had 10-minute discussions. The third group watched 10 minutes of "Seinfeld" in isolation. When given cognitive tests as a follow up, the chatters and intellectual exercise group did better than the solitary "Seinfeld" viewers, and the chatters did just as well as those who did intellectual exercises.

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    Fast forward to today's edition of the New York Times, which features an article entitled 'Its Appeal Slipping, The Senior Center Steps Livelier." This article describes the reinvigoration of senior citizens centers across the country.


    The Times reports, "There is a new cafe society in Chicago's Norwood Park neighborhood, one of three storefront hubs for the elderly here - a sleek meld of Starbucks, Bally's and Elderhostel - that have become models for reinvigorating America's senior centers." Another senior center in this Chicago group that is mentioned in the article is the North Shore Senior Center, which serves 32 suburbs.


    Elements in these new senior citizens centers, according to the Times article, include: "fitness activities, chronic-disease management, fall prevention and other aspects of healthy aging; continuing education both practical and intellectual; volunteer and work opportunities for those not ready for retirement; a handsome environment that accommodates the physical limits of age without looking institutional; and some programs aimed to the ‘young old,' those from 55 to 65, to begin changing their negative view of senior centers."


    The Chicago centers, operated by a not-for-profit agency called Mather Lifeways, are stepping up to the challenge of creating a new place for community for older. Some of these centers house fitness centers, sculpture studios, classrooms, and sunny atriums. In addition, the North Shore center builds relationships with the "young-old" by providing specialized support for them as they care for elderly parents.


    The Mather Lifeways group will not franchise, but is offering training to other organizations who are interested in starting similar cafes. Two cities - Valparaiso, Indiana and Sun City, Arizona, have established cafes, while 30 other cities are exploring the concept.


    Finding ways to become engaged and to interact can be difficult as we age. It's worth watching whether senior centers such as those run by Mather Lifeways will successfully reach out to the public and provide opportunities to create a sense of community - and with it, a way to continually strengthen our memories.

Published On: March 25, 2008