DAYTON — Senior centers around the country are grappling with stagnant or slipping attendance, but staff and volunteers at the Columbia County Senior Center are doing what they can to defy national trends.

The senior center, a few blocks off Main Street in Dayton, serves a different purpose for everyone who walks in the door between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For some, it is a place to socialize, have a meal and shoot some pool with their friends. While this is an important part of their lives, the center provides a more pressing service for others that is not available anywhere else.

On a visit to the center last week, Barbara Gibson, the senior center president, pointed to a corner just on the inside of the center’s front door, where a few walkers were folded up. She said the center accepts donations of things that help seniors with mobility issues.

“We’re really down on wheelchairs,” she said.

Gibson said she always makes a point to counter the idea that the senior center is only for older people struggling with disabilities or economic hardships.

“Everyone’s welcome here,” Gibson said.

The center provides an array of activities and services, with much help from volunteers. There are three full bookcases in the corner, another bookcase of puzzles in another room, and the center hosts Bingo a few times a month. It also helps connect people with health resources, transportation and nutrition. These are just a few examples, but Gibson said just getting seniors to come together over lunch is a main goal.

“The visiting is sometimes more important than the meal,” Gibson said.

The Dayton Chronicle printed an article submitted by the center late last month titled, “Death of the Senior Center?”

According to the article, submitted by a senior center member, the Columbia County Senior Center had about 60 regulars several years ago, but that number has dwindled. Despite the striking title, Gibson said she has seen a gradual uptick recently.

National trend

However, senior centers nationwide cannot say the same. According to the National Council on Aging, senior center directors across the country are reporting drops in attendance.

“It’s actually quite a conundrum,” said Manoj Pardasani, a Fordham University professor and senior center researcher. “On one hand you have a very rapidly aging population; on the other hand you have senior centers that are not attracting this growing population.”

There were 47.8 million people over the age of 65 in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That population grew by 1.6 million from the year prior. The Census estimates the amount of people over the age of 65 will about double by 2060.

Pardasani predicts public spending on programs for aging Americans will explode in the coming years. By the year 2035, there will be more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 18 for the first time in American history, according to the Census.

Pardasani also said he thinks the senior center of the future is unlikely to be a single unit, like many are today. Senior centers, hospitals and public health agencies should blend their services to create a kind of “consortium,” he said.

Working together

In a way, Pardasani’s idea of a consortium is taking shape in Dayton. The senior center partners with the public library to encourage reading among seniors. Its members have been gathering donated food since last fall to build up its own sort of food bank. And they works closely with the Columbia County Health System.

Stephanie Carpenter, the county health system’s chief nursing officer, said multiple entities actively work together to provide access to services.

“It’s not just the senior center, not just the hospital, not just the rest home,” Carpenter said. “We all have to work together.”

Dayton General Hospital provides the food, which is brought to the senior center for its lunches and prepared for Meals on Wheels deliveries.

She said the health system tries to bring speakers to the senior center every month to give talks on how members can maintain their health in specific areas. Most recently, a talk covered men’s health. Next month, a hygienist will discuss oral health.

Carpenter, who has been coming to the senior center about twice a month for around two years, said the health system was able to send Booker Rest Home’s nursing director to a program in Salt Lake City where that person received certification to educate businesses on being more dementia-friendly.

Consistent and targeted programming like this is paying off, she said.

“We’re getting more community involvement,” Carpenter said. “I see new faces in here all the time, even from Waitsburg and Prescott.”

But Orinda Woods, the center’s meal site manager, said there are still people they are not reaching. The center has worked hard to change the perception that it is only for the poorest and oldest people. Woods said the people who overcome that and check out the senior center often become regulars.

Woods manages a team of a few volunteers who prepare the hospital-provided food for the center and put together meals for delivery, a crucial resource for those that lack the money and the access to transportation to provide for themselves.

“We are providing what is sometimes the only nutritious meal they have in a day,” Woods said.

Elmo Nunnemaker, a senior center member whom Woods affectionately described as a “pool shark,” said the food the center provides is an important part of his diet. The meals are well-balanced, Nunnemaker said, and he takes home a few extra to freeze and eat later.

He said he has always been fascinated by pool, but his dad forbade it when he was a kid, and he didn’t have the time or money to do it later in life. But now, he can play with his cohorts at the center twice a week, though he humbly rejected the “pool shark” description.

Between food, pool and camaraderie, the senior center has kept Nunnemaker coming back for about two years.

“There’s just a lot of good stuff here,” he said.

Forrest Holt can be reached at forrestholt@wwub.com or 526-8326.