Growing older should be about sharing experiences and enjoying a less demanding lifestyle than is typical in the years spent balancing jobs, young families, and other obligations, but, too often, aging is seen as a negative, or, at the very least, full of limitations.
Active Aging Week, celebrated annually, aims to challenge the typical expectations of aging by showing that, regardless of age or health conditions, older adults can, and should, continue to live full, engaging, and purposeful lives and enjoy being members of their communities.
Active Aging Week is a global effort to introduce or reinforce healthy lifestyles and focuses on more than just the physical health and wellbeing, instead trying to emphasize the equal importance of social, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual health.
Sparta/White County Family YMCA, a leading non-profit dedicated to strengthening community, is addressing the needs of the community’s growing aging population with their Aging Strong Program. The YMCA’s Aging Strong Program began over a year ago and serves to do year-round exactly what the International Council on Active Aging is aiming for with their Active Aging Week.
“At the YMCA, we’ve made health a top priority through group fitness classes and programs, but Aging Strong is focused on the mental and emotional health. The top priority is provide psychological safety to seniors and put them in an environment where they feel safe so bonds can form,” Kyle Goff, the Sparta/White County Family YMCA CEO, explained. “Our office administrator, Roxanna Hitchcock, brought this idea to me in early 2020, and I gave her my full-support, and she took it and ran with it. It is one of the programs I am most proud of.”
The Aging Strong Program emphasizes physical well-being, but places an intentional focus on social interaction and relationship building, ensuring that Aging Strong participants experience a strong sense of belonging and create a network of friends who provide support for sustained health and well-being.
“The goal was to address all aspects of wellness and help older adults stay active physically, mentally and socially,” Hitchcock said about the program she helped to develop and for which she now serves as coordinator. “I want to help every one of our participants live a healthy, connected and fulfilling life. I cultivate so much purpose and meaning through my work with Aging Strong. To see a widow, for example, smile and laugh makes my heart so happy.”
As a society, we’ve been through a lot since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it can be argued that our aging adult populations may have suffered the most from the non-illness side of the past 18 months. Social distancing has left many seniors isolated and on their own to navigate the uncertainties and mounting stress that has become a normal part of American lives recently.
“Seniors need this now more than ever,” Goff said about active aging programs like his facility’s Aging Strong. “Seniors are feeling more isolated due to the pandemic. The rate of adults ages 60 to 80 who reported feeling isolated soared from 27 precent to 56 percent in 2020.”
Hitchcock said she has been encouraged with the amount of participation the program has seen from Sparta’s aging adult community and how eager members have been to resume activities – both physical and social in recent months but added that she hopes to see even more new faces as the program continues to grow and expand.
“We put out a newsletter every month with new activities. You can come by the Y or check our website and Facebook,” Hitchcock said, encouraging anyone age 50 or over to check out the calendar that includes group walks, visits to the playhouse, card game get-togethers, ice cream socials, and much more. “Come join us for camaraderie and fellowship.”
Goff added that financial position should not be a factor in deciding whether to join the Aging Strong program at Sparta/White County Family YMCA. According to Goff, there is no additional charge for YMCA senior members to join the program, and the Y offers a special Senior Citizen membership rate. Additionally, the local facility participates in the Silver&Fit and Renew Active programs for Medicare-age members.
“We encourage people to check with their insurance provider or come by the YMCA to determine if they are eligible,” Goff said.
He also stated that some Medicare programs will provide membership assistance for YMCA programs but quickly added that even if a participant isn’t eligible for the insurance assistance, there are other financial assistance programs offered by the facility, which ensures that no aging adult who wants to belong is turned away.
Goff said, “As a leading non-profit committed to helping seniors thrive, financial assistance is available to those in need to ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate.”