Center for Healthy Aging conducts focus groups at senior centers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A group of Penn State researchers recently sought input from older adults regarding their experiences and expectations for leisure opportunities at senior centers as a first step to developing programs to meet their specific needs.

The feedback collected through the focus groups will be utilized for future studies, such as evaluating effects of existing programs as well as developing new programs. The research was funded by a Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) grant, supported by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health.

The study began when a large working group of researchers formed to assess interest in developing various systems to assist with health and wellness programming at senior centers.

“They said almost immediately, ‘we come to senior centers to meet people and engage in leisure,’” said Amy Lorek, research and outreach associate with the Center for Healthy Aging.

With initial feedback identifying the importance of leisure, a smaller group of researchers decided to tackle the issue through six focus groups that included more than 100 older adults who attend six senior centers in Centre County.

The focus group discussions were conducted with attendees of senior centers in Centre County, Pennsylvania, as the starting point to better understand how the Penn State Center for Healthy Aging, Penn State Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, Centre County Office of Aging, Centre Region Parks and Recreation, senior center managers and other stakeholders can facilitate leisure engagement and other healthful programs for older adults. An article about their study is featured in the May 19 edition of Leisure Sciences.

Through focus group discussions, researchers learned that senior center attendees have a strong drive for self-determination to meet needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Seniors also indicated they enjoy reliable, meaningful activities that included social interaction with their peers. Participants said spending time at senior centers helped them achieve their goals.

“As they began to talk to us, leisure became a major topic of discussion. We found they wanted to connect with other people. They wanted to express a sense of competence and control. We found there were many challenges associated with the aging process, but that through various adaptations they were able to experience leisure,” said John Dattilo, professor of recreation, park, and tourism management.

“It is our first step and a chance to listen to the voices of the community,” said Jacqueline Mogle, research scientist with the Center for Healthy Aging. “It is a good opportunity to have interaction with individuals who are the target of our research and an opportunity to give them a voice.”

“We found a vibrant community of people who love the senior center experience, are grateful for the resources that are available, and want more opportunities for connections and experiences,” Lorek said.

Margaret Frysinger, volunteer at the Center for Healthy Aging, added, “It is about hearing their voices and generating ideas based on what they said and then taking those ideas back to them to see if we got it right.”

Human Development and Family Studies graduate student Sara Freed, who assisted with the research, appreciated hearing directly from the people the research is intended to aid.

“We did not just say we were going to apply the principles of community engagement, but we actually engaged the community and we were interested in their feedback,” she said.

A result of this research was community engagement between researchers and seniors. Direct feedback influenced the Center for Healthy Aging in various ways. For example, through the focus groups researchers learned that seniors preferred attending healthy aging workshops and seminars that are held in community settings rather than on a college campus. Additionally, program attendees want to know about research and, most importantly, how to specifically apply lessons learned to everyday life.

Sandy Schuckers, Administrative Officer for the Centre County Office of Aging, helped facilitate the focus groups and recruit participants.

“It was an exciting opportunity to have Penn State researchers express an interest in all of our Centre County seniors in the community and at our six centers,” Schuckers said. “The center participants were involved in the process from the start. Everyone gained from the focus groups.”

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Last Updated March 04, 2016