Building Bodies and Brains: Revamped Senior Center Helps Seniors Move, Meet, and Fight Isolation

Earlier this year, the L.E. Phillips Senior Center got a snazzy new renovation. Here's what has changed since this spring.

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Like the senior population itself, the L.E. Phillips Senior Center in Eau Claire is always evolving – both in its programs and its physical space. The most recent evolution, finalized earlier this year, came in the form of a 4,000-square-foot addition to the senior center, 1616 Bellinger St.

“One of the things that you find when you work with this population, is they’re going to tell you what they need,” said Mary Pica Anderson, the center’s executive director. And what Eau Claire’s seniors needed was more space to move, meet, and socialize.

Ground was broken for the $3 million project last September, and the work was completed in the spring.

Among the most noticeable additions to the facility are the Leatrice & Don Mathison Fitness Center and the Presto Family Foundation Group Fitness Room. On a recent weekday morning, the fitness center bustled and hummed with seniors exercising and socializing. Next door, in the group fitness room, a class practiced tai chi.

“One of the things that you find when you work with this population, is they’re going to tell you what they need,” said Mary Pica Anderson, the center’s executive director. 

The fitness center is an expansive, bright room outfitted with the same kind of equipment you’d see in a typical health club, including treadmills, ellipticals, and other cardio gear. While much of this equipment was already at the senior center, in the lower level, there have been some additions, including weight benches and free weights.

“Those are incredibly valuable for increasing strength for better balance,” Pica Anderson said. Today’s seniors, she said, “have found out if they truly want to stay independent, they have to stay strong physically.”

Poor balance, for example, can lead to falls, which can lead to injuries, lack of mobility, and – ultimately – isolation.

Physical fitness isn’t the only way that the senior center helps fight such isolation among seniors. A full calendar of activities at the center keeps seniors socially connected, whether it’s over a card game, a cup of coffee, in an educational session, or through a club like the Happy Hookers (a group whose name demonstrates that knitters have a sense of humor).

Meanwhile, the building’s lower level, which used to house the fitness area, has been remodeled into space for larger group gatherings as well as a peaceful lounge ideal for reading or other quiet pursuits. Down a hallway lies the largely unfinished area under the new first-floor fitness addition. Pica Anderson is pleased to have the additional space, which in the near future will be used (temporarily at least) as an indoor walking course during the winter months.

And while the facility’s evolution has meant some growth, it’s also meant other things have shrunk – including the lower-level computer lab. Now that so many seniors have their own laptops, tablets, or other digital devices, Pica Anderson said, there isn’t as much need for classroom filled with desktop computers (though they still have some of those). Now, the emphasis is on teaching seniors how to make the best use of those cellphones and iPads, with lessons taught with the help of UW-Eau Claire students fulfilling their service-learning hours. “(Seniors) love that opportunity to work with the college kids, and the college kids are fabulous,” she said.

In one way or another, all of the senior center’s programs have fighting social isolation as one of their goals. During the months of pandemic-induced societal lockdown in 2020, Pica Anderson said, people of all ages and walks of life got a taste of what social isolation can be like for seniors who may not have the ability or motivation to leave the home even when there isn’t a pandemic.

When Pica Anderson first came to the senior center 16 years ago from the YMCA, she noticed some seniors came to the center mainly to play cards, and she wondered how she could get them more active. Now, she recognizes that pastimes like card playing aren’t just idle activities but instead are great ways to exercise the brain – and the senior center, she said, is all about building stronger bodies, bones, and brains.

So whether it’s a physical or social activity that brings seniors in the door, “They just go home feeling much better about their day, much better about themselves,” Pica Anderson said.

L.E. Phillips Senior Center • (715) 839-4909 • 1616 Bellinger St., Eau Claire • • Find it on Facebook

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