Senior Centers, Not Just a Place to Play Bingo

Published February 1, 2013, Pawtucket Times

Today’s senior centers are not the places our parents once visited to knit or play bingo. Established in the 1980s by the U.S. Administration on Aging, the centers programming has slowly evolved to encompass activities that encourage healthy aging and wellness, says Mary Lou Moran, who oversees Pawtucket’s Leon A. Mathieu Senior Center. Established in 1980, last year over 15,000 clients took advantage of programs and social services offered, or to eat a nutritious meal, she notes.

At Rhode Island’s 47 Senior Centers, “We are now looking at the whole person, the body, mind and spirit,” notes Moran, a former Program Coordinator who now serves as Director of Senior Services. “It is very important that we encourage individuals to live independently and safely in their communities.”

At the Leon Mathieu Senior Center, health screenings, specifically taking blood pressure readings, are performed by nursing students from Rhode Island College and URI Pharmacy students, notes Moran. “Proper nutritional counseling is a very big deal, too,” she adds, noting that a nutritionist is available to provide individual counseling.

Through the Eyes of Clients

Linda Slade discovered the Leon Mathieu Senior Center after retiring from working in retail for over 38 years. Initially, attending a few exercise activities in October 2010, she was forced to stop attending, taking care of her terminally ill husband. After his passing she came back four months later “to just be with people again.”

Slade, initially had misconceptions about Pawtucket’s Senior Center. “I was a young sixty-two and not really sure what to expect,” she said, expecting to be surrounded by very old people. That first visit totally changed her mind, seeing younger people. Besides knitting, playing cards or cribbage, the Pawtucket resident participates regularly in arthritis class, stretch exercises and Tai Chi.

Before attending the Senior Center’s exercise classes, Slade’s son had given her a gym membership. “Basically I was intimated to go because of the younger people,” she says. Now Slade is more comfortable working up a sweat with her Senior Center exercise companions.

According to Slade, the City’s Senior Center offers something [activities] for everyone, her involvement even gave her an opportunity to develop new social bonds. “I had a work family that I truly adored, but now I adore my Senior Center family, too” she said. Just like the fictional bar, Cheers, Slade knows everyone’s name in all her activity groups.

“Going bonkers” and feeling a need to get out of her home propelled Nancy Connor, 79, a former Secretary to the CEO of Citizens bank, to the doors of the Leon Mathieu Senior Center. Aortic valve surgery forced the Pawtucket resident into an early retirement in her early seventies from a job she loved and found intellectually challenging.

Once the Pawtucket widow, who lives with her companion, Mave, a 60 pound Royal Standard Poodle, found the Leon Mathieu Senior Center in the Yellow Page Directory, she went to see what it was all about. She’s been going daily ever since.

The Grand Dame of the Literary Circle

Like Slade, before attending, Connor had a misconception about Senior Centers, thinking that she would see “a bunch of old people doddering along.” Now the enthusiastic participant has found out that this was not the case.

According to Connor, not as many men come into the Center. “We really do outnumber them,” she quips, noting that they “usually appear out of thin air when there is a high-low jack game.

Walking with a cane keeps Connor from exercising but she hopes to some day explore the Chinese practice of Tai Chi. However, she gets activity involved in other pursuits. Never published, she took up writing, participating in the Book and Drama Clubs, and now considers herself the “Grandma Moses” of the Senior Center’s literary circle.

Meanwhile, Connor and a few other older participants meet monthly with third year Brown Medical students to teach them the art of speaking to the “geriatric crowd,” she says. At Friday coffee hours, invited guests come into the Senior Center’s large activity room to entertain, teach or educate, she says. If a cancellation happens, she’s drafted to play piano for the crowd in the activity room.

Like in Senior Centers across the Ocean State, every day Connor can eat lunch, only paying a minimal fee. “It is wonderful stuff, from soup to nuts,” she remarks.

A Medical Model

Jill Anderson, Executive Director of Senior Services Inc., a private nonprofit corporation established in 1975, manages the Woonsocket Senior Center. Each day over 100 clients (around 500 annually) participate in exercise activities and health and wellness programs at her site. A day care program in her building handles 35 people who have limitations in their daily living.

Reflecting its medical model philosophy, the Woonsocket Senior Center’s registered nurse, who also serves as the Wellness Director, counsels people on how to change behaviors to maintain better health. Health screening, including blood pressure checks, diabetic and bone density testing are also part of a Wellness program.

About 20 retired volunteers regularly help out each day serving lunch and assisting staff, notes Anderson. “These individuals create a friendly atmosphere for the new clients, making sure they don’t sit by themselves.”

Although many of Rhode Island’s Senior Centers have an annual membership fee or charge registration fees to participate in activities, Anderson’s nonprofit does not. “We just ask people to make a voluntary weekly contribution of one dollar to fill the gap that fundraising, grants and memorials don’t cover.”

Like in many other Senior Centers, computer courses in a computer lab is offered, says Anderson. “We would like to do more with computers, maybe we can some day offer both Intermediate and Advanced computer classes, too,” she adds, because the older clients are interested in embracing new technology, like I-pads, and smart phones.

“A Benefits Councilor also is on site to identify benefits and programs our clients are entitled to receive, states Anderson, this ultimately helping to lower the cost of supplemental Medicare plans, and make other economies.

Pumping Weights

Robert Rock, Director East Providence Senior Center, on Waterman Ave., provides all the typical exercise programs that Senior Centers offer. But through a $96,000 grant received from the U.S. Administration on Aging, his Senior Center now houses the only fitness center in the Ocean State.

“The [fitness] program promotes attitude change and development of appropriate exercise skills and reduces the risks of a sedentary lifestyle. It also improves the quality of life for our senior population,” Rock says.

According to Rock, a client can gain privileges to using the fitness room for a very minimal fee of $40 for single membership, $60 for couples. Equipment includes three treadmills, two recumbent bikes, an elliptical stepper, hand weights and six dual weight machines. Other features include a matted floor, mirrored walls, water, stereo, and cable TV.

Rock notes that 90 percent of the 258 people, mostly in their 60s, are taking advantage of this fitness center room, an attachment to the Senior Center. “They come to work out and then leave,” he says, noting that the oldest, a 91-year old man comes to work out three days a week.

Rock believes that once aging baby boomers come to us for the fitness room, they will choose to come back for other programs and services offered by his Senior Center.

Walking is also an important exercise, too, says Rock. Many clients take advantage of using the Senior Center’s half mile walking track.

Finally, Rock adds that the East Providence Senior Center is also a Rhode Island state-certified site for diabetes education. Both classes and individual counseling are offered.

In conclusion…

Starting in church basements, many as small social clubs, the passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965, propelled Senior Centers into a key provider in the nation’s long term care continuum of care.

Today, 11,000 senior centers serve one million older adults every day. In Rhode Island, 47 agencies, serving 208,000 persons, are geographically spread out from Westerly to Woonsocket and from Foster to Tiverton. Some are managed by municipalities, others by nonprofit groups. While catering to serving the state’s burgeoning elderly population, some have expanded their mission to offer programs for young and middle age adults.

While the average age is age 75, many of Rhode Island’s Senior Centers are adjusting their programming and services to attract the state’s aging baby boomers by focusing on health and wellness, recreation and life long learning.

According to Rhode Island’s Division of Elderly
Affairs (DEA), over 14 percent of Rhode Island’s population is age 65 and over. By 2030, its projected to grow to over 21 percent. Rhode Island’s senior centers are a key provider to keep the aging baby boomers, healthy, independent and at home.

Yes, today’s Senior Centers are not your parent’s bingo hall, as some mistakenly believe. Why not visit your local senior center you may even be surprised with what you find. Call DEA for a complete listing of the state’s senior centers at 401/462-3000.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be contacted at


Legendary Cowsills to Come Home to Be Recognized By Their Own

Published January 25, 2013, Pawtucket Times

Bob Cowsill, of Rhode Island’s legendary Cowsills, has come full circle in his forty year musical career. Now living on the West Coast, the nationally-acclaimed musician and his band member siblings are planning a trip back to their childhood home. On Sunday, April 28th at the Hope Artiste Village complex in Pawtucket, they will be inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame (RIMHOF).

Beginning a Musical Journey

The Cowsills, who play pop and rock ‘n’ roll, are one of the most successful family musical acts of the 1960s. They grew up just an hour’s drive from Pawtucket, on Aquidneck Island where their names are still carved into a tree on the family homestead. The band was founded by four of the Cowsill brothers (Bob, Bill, Barry and John) in 1965. Within two years, it encompassed nearly the entire family with the additions of brother Paul, sister Susan, and their mother, Barbara (“Mini-Mom”). Their father, Bud, became their manager. (Bob’s twin brother Richard is the only sibling who never joined the band.) The Cowsills later became the creative inspiration for the 1970’s television show, The Partridge Family, still in syndication today.

The Cowsills were the first of the family rock groups, opening the door for others, says Bob, the eldest of the musical clan. Those following in their footsteps included The Jackson 5 and The Osmonds, who made the switch to rock following the Cowsills’ success.

“The family angle just evolved,” says Cowsill, stressing that it should not be considered “premeditated.” When it became difficult to interest musicians on Aquidneck Island to join the fledgling band, Cowsill notes that it became obvious that the younger siblings were the answer to filling the empty slots.

In the mid-sixties, the Cowsills were hired as a regular act on Bannister’s Wharf, playing weekly at Dorians, in Newport, “at that time a rough Navy town,” says Bob.

He notes that the group’s first big career break in 1964 came after playing in the basement disco of the MK Hotel, 38 Bellevue Ave., in Newport. From this performance came an invitation to play on the Today Show. Their 20 minute performance caught the attention of singer Johnny Nash and the group signed their first recording contract with his JODA Records label, releasing their first single, “All I Really Want To Be Is Me,” in 1965.

America’s Musical Family

Cowsill recalls how that first single was pitted against “The Sound of Silence” on a WPRO radio contest. When the votes were tabulated, the Newport band “won by a landside.” To this day, he still chuckles when remembering the Cowsills’ victory over America’s most recognizable musical duo, Simon and Garfunkel.

From the late ’60s into the early ’70s, the Cowsills appeared on many popular television shows, among them: The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, the Mike Douglas Show, and the Johnny Cash Show. They even hosted their own NBC TV special called “A Family Thing.”

“Bewilderment,” says Cowsill, thinking about his two performances on The Ed Sullivan Show. The group had contracted to appear ten times which would have put them on Sunday’s most popular show more times than The Beatles. But a fiasco over a microphone that was accidentally turned off between Sullivan’s son-in-law and Bud Cowsill resulted in the cancellation of the remaining eight shows, he said.

Before the young Cowsills had their first hit record, they were hired as one of the headliners, along with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, The Byrds and The Beach Boys (all Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees) for Soundblast ’66 at Yankee Stadium in New York. “We were in pop wonderland. It was just unbelievable. Somehow, my father worked magic and got us to Yankee Stadium for this show. We were not famous at the time but apparently good enough to play for the crowd.”

Bringing Home the Gold

In 1967, the Cowsills first MGM release, “The Rain, The Park & Other Things,” sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold record. This song would ultimately reach No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 in Cash Box and Record World.

One year later, the band scored another near million-selling hit with the song “Indian Lake,” reaching No. 10 on the charts and in 1968, the band hit No. 1 again with their version of “Hair,” a three-million seller which brought them a nomination for 16 Magazine’s Best Group of 1970. “Hair” was banned from Armed Forces radio in Viet Nam for being too controversial, noted Cowsill, stating that, “We were amused at the time because our brother, Richard, who was in Vietnam reported back that they were playing it everywhere!”

Baby boomers may remember the Cowsills taking on the role as spokespersons for the American Dairy Assn. with their “Milk Song” appearing in commercials and their images in print ads promoting milk. Cowsill also notes that his group has been referenced in trivia game questions and twice on David Letterman’s Top Ten List.

In 1969, The Cowsills became the first rock group to record a theme for a television show, “Love American Style.” Their melodic sound has also been featured in movies such as “The Impossible Years” and “Dumb and Dumber”, and other TV shows including “The Wonder Years” and “The Simpsons.”

A feature-length film, “Family Band – The Story of The Cowsills,” which documents the rise and fall of the group is coming to cable TV in March. “It will show what really happened in our family band,” says Cowsill.

The Cowsills disbanded in the early 1970s but most of them have never fully retired from the music business and various members have regrouped through the years.

Cowsill and his siblings John, Susan and Paul, plus two of the band member’s sons, continue to play concerts across the country at casinos, fairs and music festivals. Today, he’s come full circle in his career. For more than 27 years, the sixty-three year old musician has been playing at Pickwick’s Pub in Woodland Hills, California, every Friday night, once again performing the songs of the Beatles and The Byrds. During the day, Cowsill coordinates medical conferences across the country, provides medical coding services to emergency departments, and assists in developing and installing software for use in emergency rooms.

On April 28th, 2013, The Cowsills will be inducted into The Rhode Island Music Hall Of Fame along with Steve Smith & The Nakeds, Bobby Hackett, Paul Geremia, Jimmie Crane, Eddie Zack, Sissieretta Jones, George M. Cohan and Bill Flanagan.

Reflecting on this upcoming recognition, Bob says, “The fact that we are being inducted into RIMHOF and not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is more special to us. There is a little bit more meaning to us because we are Rhode Islanders, to be recognized by our own. It is very cool to go to Pawtucket rather than Cleveland!”

For more information about the Cowsills, to leave a message on the group’s guestbook, or to sign a petition to get them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, visit:

Tickets for the 2013 induction are $20 in advance or $25 at the door for the evening ceremonies and concert, and $10.00 in advance or at the door for the afternoon events. The Cowsills will perform in the evening. Tickets are available at

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at: He also serves on RIMHOF’s Board of Directors.

Increasing Your Odds of Living to 100 and Beyond

Published January 18, 2013, Pawtucket Times

Just barely holding onto the record for being the nation’s oldest person for about two weeks, Mamie Rearden, of Edgefield, a 114-year-old South Carolina woman, died on Jan. 2, just three weeks after a fall broke her hip. The amazing thing though, is for how long she was so healthy and living independently. According to recently published research, most people who reach the age of 110 years and beyond, only spend, on average the last 5 years of their incredibly long lives with age-related diseases.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the Gerontology Research Group, an organization verifying age information for the Guinness World Records, noted that Rearden’s Sept. 7, 1898, birth was recorded and therefore verified in the 1900 U.S. Census, making her the nation’s oldest living person after last month’s passing of 115-year-old Dina Manfredini of Iowa. Before Rearden died, she was more than a year younger than the world’s oldest person, 115-year-old Jiroemon Kimura of Japan.

Rearden, married to her husband for 59 years until his death in 1979, raised 11 children, 10 of whom are alive. The former teacher and housewife first learned how to drive a car at age 65. At this time she worked for an Edgefield County program locating children whose parents were keeping them out of school, reported AP.

Studying the Nation’s Oldest Citizens

Dr. Thomas Perls, a geriatrician who heads the Boston University-based New England Centenarian Study (NECS), considers Rearden’s longevity to be a very rare occurrence. She was one of around 70 supercentenarians (people who have reached age 110) living in this country, he says.

Almost 20 years ago, when Perls’ longitudinal study began, about 1 per 10,000 people in the United States survived to age 100. However, he notes that they are now more common at a rate of 1 per 5,000.

“Now most people think that getting to your eighties is expected,” says Dr. Perls. Simply put, more Americans are now living longer today than in previous generations because the high childhood mortality rates in the early 1900s have been slashed due to hugely improved public health measures like clean water, vaccinations and a safe food supply combined with a more educated population and improved socioeconomic conditions, he noted.

Meanwhile, vaccinations for older people, effective antibiotics and medications for what have become chronic rather than acute lethal diseases, as well as curative surgeries are now markedly improving middle-age people’s chances of living to even older ages, adds Dr. Perls.

Finding the Secrets of Longevity

Dr. Perls says his passion for working with the nation’s oldest began when at 16 years old he worked as an orderly in a nursing home. In 1986, he received his medical degree from the University of Rochester, later a Masters from the Harvard School of Public Health. His specialization in geriatrics ultimately would propel him into a life-long interest in finding the secrets as to why people successfully age well and live for more than a century.

Born in Palo Alto, California, Dr. Perls later moved to Colorado and is now residing in Boston. A professor at Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Perls, board certified in internal medicine and geriatric medicine, has coauthored a book for the lay public, entitled, Living to 100, co-edited an academic book, and penned 106 juried articles. He is the author of the online Living to 100 Life Expectancy Calculator. It uses the most current and carefully research medical and scientific data to estimate how old you will live to be ( and provides some general advice according to your answers to about 40 questions that take about 7 minutes to complete.

Initially at Harvard University, the NECS later relocated to Boston University School of Medicine, giving his longevity initiative “room to grow,” says Perls, who is NECS’s founding director. Today this demographic initiative, now considered to be the world’s largest study of centenarians and supercentenarians, is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), private foundations and “cherished” individual donors, he says. Study participants and their families fill out health and family history questionnaires, and provide a blood sample for studying their genes.

Along with the NECS, Dr. Perls also directs the Boston-based study center of the multi-center and international Long Life Family Study (LLFS) which is a study of families that have multiple members living to extreme old age. Both initiatives are enabling researchers to find out how and why centenarians and their children, who are in their seventies and eighties, live the vast majority of their lives disability-free.

As to those who participate in his NECS and LLFS initiatives, the youngest is about 45 years old (a very young child of a centenarian) and the oldest ever enrolled was 119 years old, the second oldest person in the world, ever, states Perls. Since he begun the NECS, out of 2,200 participants, 1,200 were age 100 and over, he added. The remaining participants were children of centenarians or in the study’s control group. “Because of their ages, most of these folks have now passed away,” he said, adding that at any one time about 10% of the total centenarians in the study are alive.

Unraveling the Data

During his long career studying centenarians, the research findings indicate that it is common for centenarians to have brothers and sisters who also live to be very old. “Exceptional longevity runs strong in families,” he notes.

Dr. Perls’ research also debunked long-held beliefs that the longer you live, the sicker you get. But even if centenarians were afflicted by multiple age-related diseases in their nineties, on average 90 percent functioned independently at the average age of 93 years, he says. Centenarians living to age 100 were found to have avoided age-related disabilities as well as diseases until, on average, their last 5 years.

While a healthy life style is definitely important to living into ones’ eighties with much of that time spent in good health, Dr. Perls states that having the right genes becomes more and more crucial for living to a much older age.

Research indicates that living to your mid-eighties is 70-80% environmental and habits and 30-20% genes. Seventh Day Adventists were found to have the longest average life expectancy in the United States, that is 88 years. Most of that longevity was likely due to their healthy habits which include being vegetarian, regularly exercising, not smoking or drinking alcohol and also doing things that decrease the effect of stress.

However, many Americans do just the opposite, with unhealthy diets, not exercising and still, many people smoke, notes Dr. Perls. So it is not surprising that on average, Americans die 8-10 years earlier than Seventh Day Adventists, at the average age of about 80 years. (According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in 2010, the U.S. life expectancy was 75 years for males and 80 years for females.)

“We should take advantage of our genes and not fight them,” Perls says, by adopting healthier lifestyles.

Perls believes that DNA research on very old people should for now not focus on identifying genes that predict diseases. Rather the findings in the near future might just offer clues to how some genes slow the aging process and protect people from age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and heart attacks. Such discoveries could lead to the development of drugs that protect against multiple chronic diseases.

A Final Note…

Make working to create a healthier life style a top priority on your New Year’s resolution list. This effort might just ratchet up your life expectancy into the mid-eighties and if you have longevity in your family, even longer. Why not stop smoking, and watch your drinking, too. Even make exercise, weight training and keeping your mind active as part of your daily routine. Combine these lifestyle changes with better eating habits, meditating or yoga, or even doing low impact exercises like tai chi, and you’re on your way to increased longevity.

Ultimately, a healthier life style along with good genes may well help you increase the odds of living to 100 and beyond.

If you know anyone who is 105 years old or older, please mention the New England Centenarian Study to them and/or their family. The Study can be reached at (888) 333-6327 or you can go online for more information.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at