Nancy Colagiovanni of Dracut, front, and Marilyn Noble of Lawrence go through their yoga-class routine., VALLEY DISPATCH/BILL BRIDGEFORD
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BY JENNIFER AMY MYERS, Valley Dispatch Staff

METHUEN — Marcel St. Hilaire, 81, loves line dancing.

“It keeps me active and I enjoy the socializing,” said St. Hilaire, a retired tax examiner, who has been an active participant at the Methuen Senior Activity Center since its inception 21 years ago. “I’ve met a lot of nice people and it is just nice to be around people.”

With the elder population growing rapidly and people living longer, healthier lives, fitness and wellness programs have become a central part of the senior center’s daily schedule, Executive Director Corinne LaCharite said.

“When I came here 18 years ago, there were about 12 people involved in a modified aerobics class,” she recalled. “Since that time, the fitness program has been built up; we have brought in a variety of teachers and now offer something for everyone, from aerobics and fitness to yoga, line dancing, weight training and Tai Chi.”

“Today’s seniors want to stay healthy and are looking forward to a long 30 to 40 years of retirement,” LaCharite added.

Understanding the budget crunch of seniors living on fixed incomes, the center’s classes are modestly priced from $1.50 to $2 per class. Some more specialized classes, depending on the expertise of the teacher, may run a little more, but are still extremely affordable.

“It is strange, because in the past few years we have even had doctors referring their patients to us,” LaCharite laughed. “There was one lady who was having back problems and her doctor told her to exercise, but she didn’t know where to start. Her doctor told her to call us.”

In addition to active fitness classes, many of the 400 senior citizens who utilize the center every day play cards, shoot pool, or join the shuffleboard or bowling leagues.

“We try to provide a variety of activities to give people something to look forward to, a reason to get dressed in the morning and leave the house,” LaCharite said. “This place is kind of like “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name.”

Part of offering a wide range of activities is making sure that the city’s seniors stay healthy enough to continue participating.

Every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., the Council on Aging, in partnership with HomeCare VNA and the Methuen Health Department, holds a comprehensive health clinic.

“The visiting nurses take blood pressure, glucose counts, weigh them in, give nutrition advice and in some cases give vitamin B-12 shots that are prescribed by their doctors,” LaCharite said. “It is a great way to monitor their health between scheduled medical appointments.”

Not only does the center provide health-maintenance services and diabetes education, but it’s one of the only senior centers that has incorporated mental- health services into their wellness regime.

“When I first went to the state and told them we wanted to offer mental- health counseling services, they were not very supportive,” LaCharite recalled. “I didn’t understand how they expected us to help people with their physical health problems if we didn’t address their heads, too.”

LaCharite continued to fight for the resources to provide mental-health counseling, and was eventually granted funding through a grant to provide a registered nurse to administer such counseling.

“People go through a lot as they age, whether it is grief, or a son that has gone to prison or whatever, that can effect their physical health and that needs to be addressed,” she added.

For more information about the variety of programs offered, contact the Methuen Senior Activity Center at (978) 983-8825, or www.ci.methuen.ma.us.

Have a story idea? E-mail Jennifer Amy Myers at jmyers@thevalleydispatch.com.