By Susan E. Bouchard
(Photographs by Susan E. Bouchard and Lynda Read)
“I felt like the outside didn’t match the inside. I still felt young, but suddenly other people didn’t always see me that way.” Hannah Slachek, 71, of Pawtucket, R.I., recalls thinking she was too young for the “senior” center, but she decided to give it a try. “I joined a painting class and fell in love with the people I met there. They weren’t ‘old ladies’ they were wonderful, interesting and talented and they had already done so many interesting things in their lives.
Nearly 20 years earlier, Slachek and her husband Michael, moved to Florida for work. They were planning to eventually enjoy their retirement years there as well. But when her husband’s health failed and he passed away she had to re-think her life. She said, “I felt like there was a puzzle piece missing. Like I had to reinvent myself.” She longed to be closer to family, so she moved back to Rhode Island choosing to call Pawtucket home because it was close to her daughter, her extended family and lots of other services.
Visitors to Pawtucket may be drawn to the city to explore Slater Park along the banks of the Blackstone River or to take in a baseball game at McCoy stadium. But as the older residents know, there is more to their diverse city than tourist attractions. With more than 71,000 residents, it is the fourth largest city in the state. And it is working to became one of its more age-friendly communities.
And that is in no small part due to the Leon A. Mathieu Senior Center. A three-story historic building tucked into the downtown business district, it is a hub of activity.
On a recent Monday morning, the large front room of the center was filled with sunlight and more than 25 people
were moving through a series of exercises led by dance-fitness instructor Toba Weintraub. Called Strength and Toning, this class is set to music and everyone seemed to be getting a workout – some quietly going through the steps while others danced along at a more frenetic pace.
After the exercise class wraps up, the room is quickly transformed as tables of four fill with men and women playing in a Hi-Lo Jack tournament. Nearby, a woman pauses to add a few pieces to a community jigsaw puzzle before heading to her morning knitting class a few rooms away in the Garden Room. And who wouldn’t want to go to the Garden Room? It is flooded with so much light that even in the winter brightly-colored geraniums and hibiscus manage to stay warm and find enough light to continue to bloom. Others stopped by for coffee and donuts and to chat with friends. Continuing down the hall, in another small room, a few people were sitting together watching television. There were lots of people participating in organized activities, but lots of others, were just
visiting. Moments later, the arrival of Wendy and Tinkerbell, four-legged visitors are met with much excitement. These tiny, certified pet-therapy dogs visit the center regularly giving kisses and love to all who stop by to greet them.
Down the hall, another small room with glass windows and a door that keeps out the noise, is home to a program called Cyber Seniors. This intergenerational program pairs a college student with an older adult who is looking for help with technology. Desktop, laptop, smart phone or tablet, this one-on-one program can help with getting on Facebook, answering email or any other tech-savvy questions older adults might have.
These intergenerational moments bridge more than just the technology gap, they create better understanding between people of all ages. In addition, the center recently installed new desktop computers and classes – in both English and Spanish – are getting underway.
With Senior Center Director Mary Lou Moran at the helm, it is home to so many programs and activities it is like a little city in and of itself. There is a seamstress on-site offering sewing and alterations on Tuesdays, and a hairdressing service on Wednesdays. Lunch is available every day and breakfast is served twice a week. There is a book club, scrapbooking class, needlepoint and knitting. Blood pressure screenings, nutrition classes and diabetes
education. Tax assistance and Veterans’ Benefits counseling. These are just a few of the dozens of things happening in any given month.
“And new things are added all the time,” Moran said. “We have been expanding our wellness offerings, including Mindfulness classes, Aromatherapy, Therapeutic Message, Tai Chi and Yoga.” There are so many things to choose from, you might want to spend the day.
After lunch, life-long Pawtucket resident Alice Broadbent leads more than a dozen people in a watercolor painting class. A graphic artist by trade, she has been teaching painting classes in her native Pawtucket and neighboring communities for nearly 17 years. The group gathers around Broadbent as she demonstrates masking, an advanced technique in watercolor painting. One of the artists listening intently to the instructions is Slachek. It was this painting class that first drew her to the Mathieu Senior Center and just one of the things that keeps her coming back. Making new friends and exploring her creative side at the center has made her return to Rhode Island more enjoyable.