Seniors living the high life

Published 7:14 pm Friday, March 9, 2012

Betty Benston (left) and Geraldine Roberson share a ride on stationary bikes at the Grace Harwell Senior Center in Washington. The two visit the fitness center three times a week, one of the many perks offered by the facility. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

Bikes are lined up in front, sleek machines standing side by side. Through the door, three men hover over a pool table. In back, the regular Thursday card game is going on.

They’re living the high life at the Grace Harwell Senior Center.

Recently recertified as a “Senior Center of Excellence” by the North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services, Washington’s senior center is a bustling center of activity for those aged 55 and older. The fitness center, a warm, exposed-brick room looking out over West Main Street, gets over 50 visitors a day. Some of the bridge and canasta games have lasted for years — same games, same players. Seniors have access to yoga, Tai Chi, and aerobics classes. A walking group measures set walking goals with “Mystery Trips,” making random and interesting day trips to places nearby, while the more adventurous take off on guided tours to Hawaii, the Southwest, Alaska, and other travel destinations. A library offers the use of computers, and one-on-one training on computers, and books that can be checked out. But the best thing about this “club” is that membership is free.

“A lot of people come for the social things, most people come for the health benefits,” said Carolyn Everett, the director of the senior center. “More than 50 percent of the people who come go to the fitness center.”

Education, however, is a major draw for local seniors as well, because the center offers a wide variety of changing programs and informational sessions where they can get the information on issues that impact their lives. Programming instructors conduct forums on a long list of subjects that include living healthy with diabetes, chronic disease self-management, exercising with arthritis, and many others.

“We have ‘Coffee with the Experts’ where we invite people like the city manager, the electric director, to come and speak with them,” explained Everett. “It works out really well for us. The seniors can talk directly to the people who make the decisions that affect their quality of life.”

Certification as a “Senior Center of Excellence” is no easy feat — Everett can attest it involves a lot of paperwork. The detailing of every program offered, all the services offered, all training an employee receives, for a document called “Senior Center Operations and Program Evaluations Scope,” encompasses 5 or 6 large plastic binders that take up an entire shelf in Everett office.

“We’re going to have a bonfire now,” Everett joked, referring to the reams of paper that represent the successful recertification.

The senior center is not just about fun and games, though. The center also provides services for those who are on the verge of going into longterm care: finding transportation, building wheelchairs, support groups, giving away Ensure. The telephone reassurance program the senior center operates ensures that if a participant hasn’t called in by 2 p.m. each day, the caregiver is contacted.

“Sometimes we’ve gone to the house with the police to break-in,” explained Everett. “For very good reason.”

While the senior center offers valuable services to the community on a daily basis, the need for such services becomes acute during emergencies.

“We were inundated during Hurricane Irene with people who needed help,” said Everett.

At the moment, AARP is in residence doing taxes, for free; a group is on a 13-day cruise in the Caribbean. The next trip will take some senior adventurers to Cape Cod.

While the opportunities to get fit and socialize, relax and recreate are ample at the senior center, Everett maintains that not all seniors find it relaxing to lead a life of leisure: “for some, it’s harder for them to know how to recreate. We have to educate them that they’re allowed to have fun after they retire.”

If the good-natured bickering over card and pool tables at the Grace Harwell Senior Center is any indication, there are plenty of local seniors who’ve learned how to keep the fun in their golden years.