Key Takeaways

  • The Intercultural Senior Center (ICSC) was established to help Nebraskans age well, including refugees with language and cultural barriers.

  • ICSC evolved from a one-room program with five people to serving hundreds of people in 20 languages in a 22,000 square foot building.

  • For ICSC, modernizing means overcoming the misconception that older people come to senior centers to sit, eat, and play cards and knowing the needs and interests of people is important to continue to stay vibrant and responsive.

As the older population in the U.S. continues to grow and become more diverse, senior centers are developing strategies to provide meaningful opportunities for full participation, ensuring each of their participants have the opportunity to age well. As one shining example, the Intercultural Senior Center (ICSC) in Omaha, NE, has taken evolving its programing and social activities to meet the language and cultural needs of it seniors to a whole new level.

The National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) sat down with Carolina Padilla, ICSC founder and executive director, to talk about what modernizing senior center operations means and how senior centers can meet the needs of a growing and more diverse older population.

Why was the Intercultural Senior Center (ICSC) established?

In 2009, Padilla worked at a social service agency in Omaha, a resource center for the Hispanic and Latino community, helping young mothers. She heard their concern for their mothers, isolated by poverty, language, and cultural barriers. Having resonated with Padilla, she found a small room and invited the young mothers to gather together. From five women meeting once a week the program grew and, with support from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging, the Intercultural Senior Center was established on March 19, 2009. 

Who goes to ICSC?

The participants at ICSC come from 30 zip codes in the Omaha area and hail from about 20 different countries around the globe. While most of their participants are Hispanic, there are more than 15 languages spoken at the senior center, including Spanish, Korean, Nepali, Karenni, and Burmese.

While there is incredible diversity, ICSC participants share the need for linguistic and cultural accessibility, access to and navigation of legal and health services, transportation, and social engagement. And ICSC delivers all of these support services. The staff includes people from at least 10 different nations on three continents, and speak languages that include Spanish, Somali, Arabic, Korean, Karenni, Burmese, Hindi, and French with interpreters to supplement any other languages. 

What are some notable highlights for ICSC?

In those early days, Padilla did it all—exercise classes, English classes, meals, driving, whatever she could think of. They soon outgrew their space and moved, a pattern that would repeat several times—and as participation increased, ICSC's staffing expanded.

Until 2015, the ICSC’s participants were mostly Hispanic/Latino older adults. Then the State of Nebraska asked them to serve the growing number of refugees coming to Omaha from Africa and Asia. Padilla agreed, and that's when ICSC entered a new phase of serving older adults in the greater Omaha area.

In its short 13 years, ICSC moved four times, outgrowing its borrowed or rented space. Moving every few years was disruptive to programs and to the participants. Moving also made it a challenge to demonstrate the stability of senior center programming with potential funders. A capital campaign raised $6.5 million and a new facility, formerly a farm machine garage and motorcycle business, was purchased. It was renovated and is now the 22,000 square foot, spacious and bright permanent home of ICSC. 

What do older adults do at ICSC?

ICSC was described as "cultures coming together, learning English, making friends, and learning each other’s language for conversation".

According to a volunteer, “coming to ICSC, you feel like you’re travelling the world.”

Typical senior center programs like exercise classes, arts, education, meals, social events, and wellness programs are offered. In addition to preventive health counseling, arts, crafts, sewing, singing, and gardening, ICSC also provides several levels of English as a Second Language classes, support groups in multiple languages, and citizenship test preparation.

ICSC provides a food pantry program that allows participants to identify the foods that they want, providing 1,500 boxes of culturally appropriate groceries each month.

In addition to language barriers, many of the participants are isolated because of poverty. Providing access to benefits and helping to navigate legal and health care systems is a core service at ICSC that's provided by multilingual case managers, health coordinators, and other staff. Additionally, a full 90% of their participants do not have access to transportation, and ICSC provides rides to the center and other locations. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted ICSC?

Distance and language made it difficult to connect with people outside of the center. During the pandemic, ICSC provided check-in calls in different languages, increased the number of food pantries, included information and activities in the boxes, and offered phone-based programs with up to 100 participants. So people could discuss their concerns and needs face-to-face, ICSC staff put plexiglass screens in center vans and drove to their homes.

Their position as a trusted resource was especially important in vaccine education in communities that had higher vaccine hesitancy. ICSC also hosted vaccine and booster clinics. And in an effort to motivate participants in getting vaccinated was making it required in order to participate andreturn to the center. 

What does “modernizing” mean to ICSC?

According to Padilla, modernizing means overcoming the misconception that older people come to senior centers to sit, eat, and play cards. Aging is different for everyone, and it's important to know the needs and interests of the older adults in your community. As senior centers evolve, they can't continue to rely on the way things have always been done. Change and the ability to meet the demands of older adult picipants will help senior centers continue to stay vibrant and responsive.

What’s next for ICSC?

ICSC is always looking for what's next. The food pantry program is growing and will need to expand. According to Padilla, they are looking at partnering with other agencies to build their capacity to provide social services, so they can meet ICSC clients closer to their homes and prevent duplication of services. And based on conversations with families, they are beginning to think about how they can provide a place for people who are experiencing memory loss. 

Still not a member of the National Institute for Senior Centers? Join today, membership is free.

Free to join, the National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) supports senior centers with best practices and innovations in programming, as well as networking and training opportunities. Ask for help, leverage NISC resources, or share your successes like Omaha-based Intercultural Senior Center (ICSC). Find out how you can become a NISC Affiliate today.