As patrons of the East Lansing Hannah Community Center drop in, they usually see the myriad activities available for community seniors, which range from art and exercise classes to assistance with technology. That’s thanks to the Prime Time Senior Program, which turns 50 this year.
Prime Time, which offers a series of programs for senior citizens aged 55 and older, hits that milestone after beginning as a joint intergenerational program in 1972 — located in Red Cedar Elementary School — through a partnership between the City of East Lansing and East Lansing Public Schools.
The City Manager at the time, Jack Patriarche, appointed a committee of 12 volunteers and charged them with keeping local seniors engaged, active, and involved in the community. Although the program has changed through various iterations (acting as a nonprofit organization and later as a part of the City of East Lansing) and locations (moving to the Valley Court garage and the Hannah Center), its mission remains similar today.
ELi spoke to Kelly Arndt, the Director of the Prime Time Seniors Program, who said that Prime Time serves a diverse group of seniors who range in age from 55 to 100 years old.
“Wellness isn’t just about the absence of disease,” Arndt told ELi during a visit to her office. “It’s a state of physical, mental, emotional, social wellbeing so we try to offer programs that have those dimensions in it.”
Prime Time offers multiple exercise classes so that seniors of various ages and physical capabilities can participate. Other offerings include assisting seniors in finding someone to help with light housekeeping, even more classes like memoir writing and even something called the Death Café, where seniors can meet to discuss grief and loss.
Part of the mission of Prime Time, Arndt said, is changing how people think about seniors and aging. Many older people fear younger people don’t care about them, Arndt told ELi.
“How many people say that dialog, that we don’t care about older people anymore?” Arndt told ELi. “Honestly, our society is so youthful that sometimes, they’re [seniors] are the last to be thought of.”
While today’s program is no longer a joint effort between local schools and the City, Arndt continues the spirit of bringing young and old together.
“We need to have advocates out there who are young. And you know, one thing that is a disservice to our youth is the fear of getting older,” Arndt said. “We need to change the image of aging. I’ve heard people say, ‘This is the best time of my life.’
“Of course there are challenges when anybody ages. That’s the human body, but I think what we need to do is change our thinking about what aging means and what it is and how we as young people can be a part of it.”
During the pandemic, Prime Time partnered with the Social Science Scholars Program at Michigan State University to create the Senior Ambassador Program. MSU students and local seniors completed questionnaires about their interests and were then partnered with each other.
The result was 20 total pairs of one senior and one student. According to Arndt, the pairs met digitally each week, and the program is now entering its third year. Many former pairs still keep in contact and share their interests.
During the pandemic, offerings transitioned online and to hybrid formats, something Arndt believes has been a net positive. Before the pandemic, she had feared that some members might see coming to the Hannah Center as a barrier to participation, but Zoom allows them to join exercise classes and discussions.
Although Prime Time has gained new members through its digital offerings, some seniors who attended in-person before the pandemic have yet to return.
Arndt, who was hired to lead the program 30 years ago in 1992, pointed out how the program has led to new ways for seniors to engage the City and have their voices heard.
The first Seniors Commission was seated by City Council in 1998. And, in 2017, East Lansing was designated an Age-Friendly Community. The current Age-Friendly Community Committee meets monthly to address how East Lansing can better meet the eight domains of livability outlined by AARP and the World Health Organization: housing; transportation; communications/information; social participation; respect and social inclusion; community support and health services; outdoor spaces and buildings; and civic participation and employment.
Arndt told ELi that as the committee considers how to make East Lansing more livable for seniors, the ideas and solutions often positively impact all members of the community, regardless of age. If East Lansing makes crosswalks more accessible for seniors, they’re often easier to use with a stroller or in a wheelchair.
Seniors though still have concerns and things they would like to see improved in the community. Many seniors would like to age in place, meaning they would prefer to live independently for as long as possible in their current community. Issues like affordable housing and access to transportation still pose barriers.
Prime Time, said Arndt, provides a space for seniors to engage each other and navigate these concerns together. Prime Time offers not only classes and discussions but also clinics to assist seniors with things like use of technology and Medicare enrollment.
Community members interested in finding out more about Prime Time Seniors can visit the program’s website here.