At the age of discovery; Community: Baltimore County's innovative senior centers provide the elderly with a host of social activities and opportunities for personal growth.


Tennis lessons start at 7 a.m., stained-glass making and fitness walking at 9, followed by chess and line dancing. After lunch there's bowling, opera, advanced computers and tap dancing.

This is not a Club Med or a cruise ship. It's the daily activities schedule at Catonsville Senior Center, one of 18 centers run by Baltimore County Department of Aging.

When they began opening more than 30 years ago, senior centers were often places where elderly women would sit and knit and men would play pool. Today, they are much more.

"I don't think people understand the level of activity is high energy. People think a senior center is a place you come to rock," said Helen Bronstein, director of the Catonsville center.

The activities at Baltimore County's 18 senior centers are considered on the cutting edge nationally, said Jo Arnold, who chairs an accreditation board for the nonprofit National Council on Aging. The county is the only locality in the United States that has received accreditation for all its centers, a designation Arnold likens to "the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

Bronstein and others who work with the elderly see the centers as complex communities where people go not just for recreation, but to make new lives after spouses die, to pull themselves out of depression, to learn about consumer fraud or Alzheimer's disease.

Along the way many also discover new talents.

Having a central location where seniors can meet allows the Department of Aging to monitor the health of members at each center.

"We're the eyes of the community," said Dave Williams, chief of the county's division of senior centers, where 14,000 seniors are registered.

The centers try to offer programs that reflect the communities they serve. In Pikesville, activities are designed with Jewish seniors in mind.

The county's newest center is on the waterfront in Edgemere. Built a year ago on Greenhill Cove off Back River, seniors fish there and occasionally arrive from their waterfront homes by boat.

The centers give many retirees a sense of community they can't find anywhere else.

Bronstein tells of a woman who went reluctantly to the center, looking as if "she was off the streets" with hair and clothes in disarray. She sat for hours staring at the floor and talking to no one.

Today, well-groomed, she visits several days a week and volunteers her time.

Others take part in activities they never had time for when they were younger and worked full time.

Nicoletta Mariani discovered late in life that she is an artist. She spent years working at a Westinghouse plant, where she did wiring and soldering.

Now, at age 81, she's a painter who also creates images in stained glass.

During a recent class, she worked on a lamp decorated with intricate panels depicting an angel, a boy with a fishing pole, a flower and other images.

The elderly help keep the centers -- which generally have small staffs -- running. They volunteer to answer phones, prepare and serve food and manage money they raise to keep the centers going.

Bronstein and others say they are working with a new generation of senior citizens who are healthier and more active than their predecessors.

Through a cooperative arrangement with the county's community colleges, 119 classes -- ranging from water aerobics to the psychology of aging -- were offered at senior centers last semester.

"Our fitness programs have skyrocketed," Williams said.

At Catonsville on a recent morning, fitness instructor Phyllis Berger taught low-impact aerobics to a roomful of women. Enrollment has doubled in the past decade, she says.

Next door, Nancy Ray Sullivan and Ray Sullivan danced a jitterbug to Wayne Newton's rendition of "Hello, Dolly!" They were rehearsing for a performance.

Across the hall, Dr. Wally Tanyag, 70, a retired surgeon, practiced "Teach Me, Oh Lord" on the piano while he waited for lunch.

"I love it here because it's a second home," he said.

In the kitchen, chef Eric Bull prepared the next day's lunch, Salisbury steak, with the help of elderly volunteers.

Catonsville is the only center with its own chef, and Bull said he tries to cook low-salt meals with the protein and vitamins older people need.

After volunteers served lunch and cleared the tables, Tanyag began warming up for the next class of the day -- tap dancing.

He would be back early the next day for tennis.

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