Wearing a blue sequined vest, bow tie and a tiny sparkling barrette in her graying hair, Prince William resident Arline Blanke put on her dancing shoes to hit the stage with the Happy Hoofers during a senior citizens’ event last month.
The 75-year-old joined the group through the Manassas Senior Center, which she said has changed her life after the death of her husband nearly a decade ago.
“Prince William has gotten old people out of a rut by having the senior centers,” Blanke said. “You don’t feel like you are just sitting home waiting to die.”
Blanke is one of about 1,300 Prince William residents who attend one of two senior centers each year. Many who have hit the 55 and older mark have said the centers have been their saving grace as they face the joys and the challenges of aging.
“Compared to other counties, we have a super program for seniors here,” said Prince William resident Trudy Burks, 84. “The center has been a very positive addition in my life, and the director has really brought new blood into the program.”
The Manassas and Woodbridge senior centers have been open for 25 and 27 years, respectively, said Courtney Tierney, director of the Prince William Area Agency on Aging. Open daily, the centers provide lunch along with activities such as aerobics, dancing, cards, bowling and bingo.
Visitors can also study a new language, take computer classes or learn how to quilt. The options are endless, older adults said, and it is a way to stay active and make friends.
“The senior center saved my life,” said 82-year-old Ethel Gorham, a member of the senior dance group Oldies But Goodies. “After my husband died, I moved [to Prince William], but I had no friends. Then I got into the senior center and have been so pleased with what the county has to offer.”
In fiscal 2011, Prince William budgeted almost $864,500 for the senior programs that are coordinated through the county Agency on Aging, Tierney said, noting that donations and state and federal funding help support the meals and activities.
County supervisors recently voted to implement a $25 annual fee, or $2 drop-in fee, for the centers. Residents said that won’t turn them away from using the amenities.
In 2009, about 7 percent of Prince William’s 380,000 residents were older than 65, according to census data. Although that was a slight increase from 2000, Tierney said it is the baby boomer population that is really growing in Prince William.
To prepare for the next generation of older adults, Tierney said her agency has turned its attention to development and transportation. Working with the county planning office, the goal is to develop livable communities where people have the amenities they need to “age in place.”
Tierney has also partnered with Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission officials to develop transportation initiatives.
A pilot transportation voucher program for older, disabled and low-income residents is underway, and a consultant in Richmond is drafting a plan to be implemented when funding becomes available, PRTC Director Al Harf said. The other goal is to visit the senior centers and conduct outreach programs to teach older folks how to use the local bus system.
“Many people we are targeting could use public transit but don’t because they are either intimidated by it or don’t know how to use it,” Harf said. “It’s a labyrinth out there, and it can be very daunting. We want to help in any way we can.”