Seniors socialize, find balance through East Lansing’s Prime Time


Older people in my family have a simple, uplifting mantra when it comes to aging: never get old. My grandmother quipped this for nearly 40 years before passing at age 92. And now my parents quote our ancestral adage, even though their retirement activities so far have included earning a doctorate degree and hiking the Appalachian trail, respectively.

It seems our culture loves to hate the aging process. Whole industries have been created to offer alternatives to the inevitable. And, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, national headlines have covered social isolation and loneliness, with articles that purport to quantify exactly how much social interaction we need to be healthy. One claims five to six hours per day, while another says one event per month is enough.

One thing is certain, however: If you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone. A 2020 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine noted that more than one-third of adults over 45 feel lonely, defined as “the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact.”

Loneliness is different from social isolation, which is a lack of social connections. But the two are interrelated: A lack of connections can make people feel lonely, while others may feel lonely even in the midst of many friendships. Overall, fewer social connections and feelings of loneliness have been shown to lead to poorer health outcomes for older adults. 

With aging comes profound lifestyle transformation. Without the constraints of work and raising a family, some aging adults might feel adrift in their later years. But the Prime Time Seniors Program in East Lansing keeps the focus on the positive aspects of aging.

Prime Time’s Interim Director, Lisa Richey, said that living longer doesn’t mean a person is a diminished version of their younger self.

“Aging can be a chance to explore different levels of freedom, allowing us to reinvent ourselves and find out what meaningful, engaged living means for each individual,” she said.

Prime Time is a department of the city of East Lansing that operates out of the Hannah Community Center. It serves adults ages 55 and up according to the seven dimensions of wellness, outlined by the International Council on Active Aging: intellectual, physical, social, spiritual, vocational, emotional and environmental. According to EL Info, the program has served the community for more than 50 years and has operated in the Hannah building since 2002. The program’s funding comes from a mix of city dollars, program fees, memberships and grants from the nonprofit Friends of East Lansing Seniors program.

Emily Hanson started working as the program planner for Prime Time just a few weeks ago. The 23-year-old said that so far, she’s focused on reviewing class surveys to help determine program offerings that are relevant or unique. This fall, Prime Time will offer an online class focused on AI image generation.

Previously, Hanson worked with children. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University in political theory. While she never imagined herself working with seniors, she said the role is going great so far.

“We can and should learn from older people. They have so much to offer,” she said.

Speaking about one of Prime Time’s woodworking classes, she said, “Any stereotype you have of an older person just disappears when you watch an 80-year-old woman carving a tree stump.”

A quick look through Prime Time’s class list uncovers an array of offerings, from exercise to art and discussion groups.

“The needs of older adults are as unique as the individual,” Richey said. “If you think about the range of people we serve, adults from 55 to 105, we would never try to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to the needs of people ages 0 to 50, for example. The needs of older adults are based on their individual values and what allows them to feel most engaged with life.”

The program’s proximity to campus allows for unique partnerships and a focus on lifelong learning. A few former MSU faculty members lead classes, and in March, Prime Time’s Senior Ambassadors Program was awarded the Distinguished Partnership Award for Community-Engaged Service by MSU’s Office of University Outreach and Engagement. The Senior Ambassadors Program is a partnership with MSU’s AgeAlive and Social Science Scholars programs. It was developed in 2020 to reduce social isolation among seniors in the community by matching older residents with MSU students who share similar interests.

For two senior women who recently lost their husbands, Richey said, “The relationships with the students have given them a really positive focus. And the students have shared how significant the relationships have been to them as well, even providing them with a greater appreciation of their own grandparents.”

I caught up with Kenneth Hanson (no relation to Emily Hanson) when he came in for a 10:45 a.m. Chair Yoga class. The 88-year-old has been a resident of East Lansing for 46 years, and he practiced medicine before his retirement. For the past decade or so, he’s had trouble with his legs. He’s been attending Chair Yoga and Better Balance classes at Prime Time for about four months.

He likes to get out in his garden, and, before his balance worsened, he used to play tennis with a regular group. Prime Time classes have offered a space where he and his wife often run into their old friends and neighbors.

About getting older, Kenneth said he didn’t look down that road. He didn’t think his strength would decline or that his balance would become such an issue.

Pausing for a moment, he said, “Forgetfulness is an issue, too. I didn’t see any of this coming, but that was so short-sighted.”

This year is the first time he’s ever tried yoga, and he says he’ll keep at it. With enthusiasm, he told me, “We’ve got to keep it up.”


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