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Inside Town Government: The Smithfield Senior Center

By Ron Scopelliti

Though the Smithfield Senior Center has seen its share of changes in the past 23 years, there have been two constants anchoring the center for nearly a decade-and-a-half: Senior Center Director Karen Armstrong, and Assistant Director/Activity and Program Coordinator Kate McAdam-Prickett. But you’ll seldom hear their titles or full names used around the Senior Center. To their clientele, the two women in charge are simply Karen and Kate.

Along with a full-time bus driver, a full-time cook, and four part-time staff members, they provide a wide range of services to nearly 600 members not only from Smithfield, but from throughout the state, as well as Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“We get along very well as a family,” Armstrong says of the small staff.

Located in Deerfield Park, at 1 William J. Hawkins Jr. Trail, the center still offers time-honored activities like bocce, bingo, and card games. But there’s been a shift over the years to a more active lifestyle.

“It’s a younger generation that’s really into health and wellness,” McAdam-Prickett says. “We see that our seniors are now more interested in exercise and learning new skills and even languages. So bingo is definitely not our forte now.”

“Our yoga class is huge. Our Forever Fit class is huge,” she adds, noting: “It’s not chair yoga. It’s ‘mats on the floor’ yoga.” She says there’s no longer a demand for the less strenuous chair variety.

“It’s changing for them,” Armstrong says. “Even meals – they used to have a sit-down hot meal for lunch. Now everything’s soup or a salad or a sandwich to go. We sell fitness salads, now, that we do a really good business on.”

The change is reflected in a series of workshops taking place this month to teach seniors how to use Uber and Lyft. They’re presented in partnership with the Rhode Island College Foundation, Age-Friendly Rhode Island, AARP, and AAA.

“We hear all the time about transportation needs – on a daily basis,” Armstrong says. They hope that these workshops will help seniors get over the culture shock of entering credit-card information into an app, and using a ride-sharing service.

They also hope that presenting forward-looking programs like these will help dispel common misconceptions about senior centers.

“For some reason the stigma behind ‘senior center’ keeps people away,” McAdam-Prickett says. “They don’t think they’re old enough,” she says, or they think that senior centers are places for the infirm to sit and while away time.

A visit to one of the center’s monthly parties should dispel those notions.

“We have the best parties,” Armstrong says. “We can draw 100 people to a party – who does that?”

McAdam-Prickett adds: “When they put on “Sweet Caroline,” you would think we were at a Red Sox game.

The liveliness, they say, carries over to their numerous trips, which include day-trips, overnight stays, and cruises. Armstrong says their 20-passenger bus sells out so fast that they’re in the process of having a 29-passenger bus built, following its approval at the recent Financial Town Meeting.

Despite the upbeat atmosphere, there’s a great deal of behind-the-scenes work that Senior Center members will never see.

“Sometimes people don’t realize it takes a lot more than a bingo dabber to do our jobs,” says McAdams-Prickett.

Armstrong says that they work hard at the state level to bring in funding, including the funds being used to renovate the center’s sidewalks, and to make the front door handicapped-accessible. They also secured a legislative grant to fund new activities which will be announced in the future.

“We write a lot of grants,” Armstrong says, noting that they do their own grant-writing, rather than hiring consultants.

McAdam-Prickett says that they also incorporate fund raising into many of their activities. “Pretty much every program has a 50/50 raffle,” she says. “We run silent auctions; every now and then we do a special event.”

“Karen and I are also part of the Smithfield Special Events Committee,” she adds. “We definitely do a lot with the community as well.” This includes outreach to local nursing homes, the Fire Department, and schools.

In addition, they have to be ready for any medical emergencies that may arise, and are certified in First Aid, CPR, Food Safety, and a number of other disciplines. Despite preparing for the worst, however, the two tend to focus on the best.

“The best part of our job is when we are able to make seniors feel good, and happy,” says McAdam-Prickett.

Membership is available to anyone 55 or older, or with a permanent disability. Cost is $10 for residents, and $13 for non-residents. More information is available on the Senior Center Facebook page, or by calling 949-4590.