Celebrating Seniors: One Community’s Success Story

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Communities craving ways to keep their senior residents — and to keep them engaged and engaging — could learn a lesson from Oak Park, Illinois, a village with a population of 52,000 just west of Chicago.

Boosters on its website claim that Oak Park “boasts excellent schools, world class architecture, shopping, dining, and an extensive public transportation network.” But forward-thinking residents there also recently noted the village boasted something else: a 100{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} increase in the number of residents aged 60 to 64 as well as those aged 75 to 84 in the decade from 2000 to 2010.

That year, 2010, a number of organizations, businesses, and individuals mobilized to form the Celebrating Seniors Coalition. The coalition’s aim was to honor and recognize local seniors and to better serve their burgeoning numbers.

But in addition to striving to meet the needs of the growing senior population, founders also puzzled over why so many older locals were leaving the area. The weather — often hot and humid in the summer and bitingly cold in the winter — seemed to be one logical reason. Scratching just below the surface also brought home the fact that Oak Park, like many communities across the U.S., was simply not offering seniors the support and care they needed.

That realization helped point the way for Celebrating Seniors to formulate the group’s four main goals:

  1. Facilitating cooperation among the business community, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations for the benefit of seniors,
  2. Promoting senior groups and organizations that already serve people 60 and older,
  3. Raising public awareness of issues affecting seniors, and
  4. Generating funds to support at-risk and vulnerable elders.

Finding Those at Risk

The group’s founders also realized that to make a real and tangible difference, one size would not fit all: They would have to both honor local elders who are capable, but also find ways to serve those in need.

“Part of the purpose of Celebrating Seniors was to think about the ways we were treating older people in our community,” says James Flanagan, a financial advisor and gerontologist who was one of the coalition’s early movers and shakers. He says that lesson quickly came to the fore when the community, located near a river, suffered a major flood. “Many of the older people who were affected lived in lower income housing,” Flanagan says. “We realized we needed to mobilize quickly and identify the people at risk. It’s not like the old days — when everyone knew everyone else on the block.”

As part of their ongoing efforts at inclusion, the group publishes A Senior Resource Guide each year. It’s given free to newcomers to the community, mailed to homes, and distributed along with newspapers. Within are listings for local businesses specializing in services for seniors as well as resources including pet care, mental health services, recreational activities, home improvement, and hospice.

The guide has a feature, “60 Over 60,” that pictures and highlights 60 seniors applauded for their commitments and service to the community over the years.

And it also includes a detailed description and calendar for the group’s annual main event: Celebrating Seniors Week.

Not Your Basic Health Fair

Organizers say a key component of Celebrating Seniors Week was to raise awareness about older people, but to make that awareness-raising fun — to build a lasting change around senior issues rather than stage the usual two-hour event. Instead, it offers locals an entire week of 40 to 50 different educational lectures and fun activities.

“We did not want to sponsor the usual health fair, where seniors might be offered free blood pressure screening,” Flanagan says. “Celebrating Seniors Week might feature a blood pressure screening, but compare measurements before and after having two glasses of wine. That’s how we would do it.”

Patricia Koko, a longtime volunteer for older residents and former director of a local senior center, takes special delight in describing the diverse and deliberately offbeat activities offered from morning through evening during Celebrating Seniors Week. “One thing that knocked my socks off was our experience with bocce ball — and frankly, I didn’t even used to know what that was,” she says, though she lives near a bocce court; it had long gone unused and ignored. Then Celebrating Seniors Week included a Bocce Ball Social in its offerings, complete with refreshments and lessons in how to play. “Now, you walk past and see the court is always being used,” Koko says. “They’ve even started up weekly leagues.”

Another of Koko’s favorites: Pet Pals in the Park, where local vendors and residents gather in the park along with their pets, all of whom are gifted with special treats. The event was led by a local senior who has a knack for making the humans and animals all feel at home. “She greeted every animal, shook their paws,” says Koko.

Some other recent offerings, spanning the silly to the serious, included:

  • Luau in the Lunchroom — a Hawaiian-themed lunch followed by an afternoon of hula dancing and music open only to those 60 and older
  • Can You Afford to Retire? — a no-nonsense walk through 10 critical question to ponder before retiring
  • A Battle of Bands — with the requirement that at least one band member must be over 55
  • Senior Speed Dating — featuring three to five-minute visits between seniors willing to make connections
  • Hello, I Must Be Going — a short seminar on planning for death and dying
  • Calling All Collectors — a takeoff on “Antiques Roadshow,” where locals are encouraged to being their collectibles and clutter to be appraised by experts
  • Medical Cannabis Education and Registration — explaining the ins and outs of medical cannabis, now a legal medication option in Illinois, and
  • Celebrating Seniors 5k Run — which last year included a couple participants over age 90.

Celebrating Seniors in Your Community

“I’m really amazed at how easy this is to replicate,” says Flanagan of the Celebrating Seniors Coalition, though he cautions enthusiastic individuals and groups to go slowly at first and build a true coalition. “You need buy-ins from interested older people in the community, from business owners and their employees, from hospitals, churches, and libraries,” he says. “You’re giving them all something vibrant to promote.”

And he adds a few words of warning: “Don’t do things the community doesn’t want to do.” This can be bit more fraught with potential landmines than it sounds, when well-meaning organizers may put much time and effort into events and activities that simply don’t appeal to locals. In the first couple years of its existence, the Celebrating Seniors Coalition attempted to gather ideas through evaluations circulated to local residents, but found that most people couldn’t articulate either what was missing or exactly what was needed. Most of the best brainstorming came from face-to-face meetings with groups, urging those gathered to think creatively.

The Celebrating Seniors Coalition has also published a 300-page toolkit, available for $375 in both printed and digital form, which breaks down every element of the model.

Those interested in learning more or obtaining a toolkit to help implement a Celebrating Seniors Coalition in their own communities can contact Jim Flanagan at jflanagan@bentron.com.

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