Laughter and chatter is heard as seniors sit around a flat-screen TV and play bowling on a Nintendo Wii.
Bruce Behne lifts and releases the controller with his weathered hands. He exclaims with good humor as his bowling ball hits a spare. There is a bridge game going on in one of the activity rooms, and senior ladies perform a variety of exercise movements in their Tuesday morning exercise class.
These are just a few of the activities the Senior Friendship Centers offers to people age 50 and older. Brother William Geenen started the center in 1973, which makes this year the center’s 40th anniversary. While visiting Sarasota, Geenen saw that many seniors seemed isolated and needed an outlet through which they could socialize and continue learning.
“Loneliness and isolation are the malnutrition of the elderly,” Geenen once said. He started the nonprofit not knowing if anyone would come. To his surprise, more than 400 came out on opening day in September 1973. In the beginning, an old bungalow in downtown Sarasota served as the center. St. Martha Catholic Church lent it to the center. It contained a coffee pot, card table, some folding chairs and a checking account with $79. People showed up eager and ready to help. Geenen’s premise was to create a fellowship of people helping people. Since then, the Sarasota facility has grown from about 1,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet, and the organization now has multiple locations in seven counties: Sarasota, Manatee, Venice, Charlotte, Lee, DeSoto and Collier.
“This place is the Taj Mahal of senior centers,” said volunteer and senior David Rinderle.
Multitudes of volunteers have embraced the mission of people helping people and have found a sense of purpose. In 2003, Shirley Waite moved to Sarasota after her husband died. She worked as a registered nurse for 60 years and now finds friendship and comfort at the Senior Friendship Center. Waite initially came to the center to learn how to play bridge and soon began to volunteer. She stands at the visitors desk and greets people with a smile.
“I like it and enjoy the people,” Waite says. “I try to remember everyone’s name, and they like that.”
She enjoys the camaraderie and has noticed the close relationships that people form. “We need someone to talk to and share stories,” says Waite. “People here genuinely care about each other.”
In addition to recreational activities, the center offers seniors medical and dental clinics, health education and prevention care, as well as a number of care-giving and support services. Since the beginning, the organization has focused on addressing the challenges of aging. Today, volunteers outnumber the paid staff eight to one. The organization has 140 paid staff members who serve thousands of people in seven different counties.
“People see us as looking to the future. We serve two, sometimes three, generations of older adults,” explains CEO and President Bob Carter. “We are in the midst of a longevity future.”
The Senior Friendship Centers was the first freestanding, nationally accredited adult day-service center in the country and is the only adult day-service center in Sarasota County to be licensed by the state. A Korean film crew came a few years ago to document what the Senior Friendship Centers does so they can address their own country’s issues with the aging population.
“Everybody needs purpose in their life, and when you are older, you have more time to do that,” said Communications Director Peg Palmer.
The center continues to evolve by adding more programs and services to fulfill the needs of seniors.
“We have great-grandparents hitting hard drives, 90-year-olds who are still volunteering and we are meeting the challenges of serving a large age range,” Carter said.
Since 1973, the Senior Friendship Centers volunteers have given 1,319,684 hours of service, which values more than $34 million to the communities they serve.
158,976 home delivered meals
89,467 hours of adult day services
1,195 total volunteers
88,193 total volunteer hours