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August 8, 2013

Can Senior Centers Make Us Healthier?

Catherine_thurstonWe are proud to announce that today's post (our 100th!!!) comes from Catherine Thurston, Senior Director of Programs at SAGE.

When I joined the staff of SAGE in January 2005 and began to meet the people who attended our programs, some themes emerged right away: the LGBT older adults I was meeting were far more likely to be aging alone and far less likely to reach out for help. This double whammy clearly spoke to the need to create safe, affirming spaces for LGBT older adults to come together in community and to ensure there were all types of services in the same place: social, recreational, educational and medical. Only in that way could we ensure that LGBT older adults would have a one-stop shop to take care of their needs, allowing them to age in community, safety and good health.

Easier said than done! After decades of advocacy on the part of hundreds of SAGE constituents over the years, we were finally able to celebrate a victory on March 1, 2012 with the opening of The SAGE Center, the nation’s first full-time senior center specifically focused on LGBT older adults, funded by the New York City Department for the Aging. We had our long-awaited home; now we needed to understand if creating the space would help us reach our desired outcomes.

Art class 2A recent report by the New York Academy of Medicine provides us with some preliminary data that appears to underscore the importance of senior centers for LGBT older adults. “Enhancing Health in New York City Senior Centers” is one of the largest studies to look at improving understanding of opportunities to enhance health promotion, care coordination and preventive care among older adults who attend Innovative Senior Centers (ISCs) in New York City. At the time of the study, The SAGE Center was one of eight ISCs (two more have since opened). Focus groups were held with center participants, staff was interviewed and 50 people from each ISC completed a participant survey. The study was especially significant for The SAGE Center, as it was the first time that the LGBT older adults who use our center were compared to a non-LGBT peer comparison group. The results were seemingly affirming and contradictory: on the one hand, the results of the study reinforce the (limited) literature that speaks to increased social isolation, increased prevalence of chronic conditions and overall poorer health status among LGBT older adults when compared to their non-LGBT peers. On the other hand, when asked questions about the number of times people socialized with their friends, the percentage of daily and weekly socializing was higher among LGBT older adults. How can people be both more isolated, and more social?

The answer lies, it seems, in the senior center. While LGBT older adults often live without family support or adult children, the support they do have comes from networks of friends and peers. As we age, we find those supports in aging programs like the one offered by SAGE. Even more interesting is the fact that the LGBT older adults who attend The SAGE Center report higher rates of accessing regular health care, and better overall health assessments than their non-LGBT peers. This is not reflected in studies of LGBT older adults in the general population, which leads us to the original question: does attending a senior center make you healthier?

While there is no way to definitively answer that without more research, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people who attend centers are more engaged. Just come by The SAGE Center on any given night for dinner, and you will find a family with a few hundred members eating together, exercising together and creating community together—the very definition of a healthy life.

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