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SUBURBAN HANDBOOK: SILVER LININGS

Senior centers become a home away from home

Volunteer Anita Perkins works with Bob Tagliamonte and Jo An Kincaid in a writing class at the Newburyport Senior/Community Center.
Volunteer Anita Perkins works with Bob Tagliamonte and Jo An Kincaid in a writing class at the Newburyport Senior/Community Center.Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

When Roseann Robillard first saw the mustard-yellow color scheme chosen for the library in plans for Newburyport’s Senior/Community Center, she “kind of cringed.”

But the first week after the 15,000-square-foot center opened last fall, the Council on Aging director encountered a woman ensconced in the library browsing through a book.

“I love this room,” she told Robillard. “It’s my favorite room in the building.”

The woman explained that she has bouts of depression.

“I have a really hard time, especially in the winter, because of the lack of light and color in the world,” she said. “This room lights me up.”

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And Robillard knew the center was doing its job.

“This place is not institutional at all,” she said. “It was built with lots of light, with lots of joyous color.”

When she arrives in the morning, she’s greeted by fitness buffs drawn to the center’s exercise bikes and treadmills. On a typical day, more than 100 older adults visit the center. They can learn oil painting or how to play the ukulele; join in a conversational French group; hone their balance, posture, and breathing with a tap and ballet class; or bake chocolate cookies for their book group in the cozy kitchen off of the library. And that’s just a sampling.

“We make people feel good to be here,” said Robillard, adding in a woebegone voice: “It’s not, ‘I’m going to go to the old person’s place.’ ”

If anything, it’s an anti-aging place. “It keeps the community healthier because people are interacting,” she said. “They’re learning about one another. They’re reaching out to one another.”

The $6.5 million building offers a variety of gathering places, ranging from a living room with an electric fireplace and illuminated cabinets displaying historic artifacts to a flexible space that can be opened up to accommodate 150 people.

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The center also has private spaces, such as a wellness room where people can go for massage therapy, legal counseling, reiki (a Japanese technique for stress reduction), and foot and basic dental care.

The center was designed by Bill Sterling of Sterling Architects in Cambridge. His firm, which has 14 such buildings to its credit, stressed the importance of accommodating the frailties of aging: diminished sight, hearing, and agility.

In choosing paint, for example, Sterling leans toward primary colors because aging eyes sometimes don’t pick up the subtleties in muted hues. It’s like viewing the world through a yellow filter — and that’s just what Sterling’s designers did when they looked at potential colors.

Sterling is also the architect for Georgetown’s senior center, which will be located in a wing of the Perley School near the center of town.

Colleen Ranshaw-Fiorello, director of the Georgetown Council on Aging, said the center will take over five classrooms and have access to the school’s kitchen, cafeteria, and gym. One of the rooms will be subdivided for private consultations about health, insurance, and legal and financial matters.

Other rooms will provide space for craft making; exercise classes and equipment; card games and other social activities; and support groups.

In both the Newburyport and Georgetown centers, Sterling has incorporated what he calls “perch areas,” where people can sit and watch the comings and goings.

Initially, Georgetown planned to have seniors enter by the school’s main doors, but it turned out that the wing once had its own entrance. Sterling insisted that it be reopened.

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“It’s really important that they have their own identity, their own entrance,” he said of people who use senior centers. “Once you establish that this is your own place . . . it becomes a true community center.”


Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.