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Rejuvenating the Senior Center

2012-05-01, Feature, by Elizabeth Beard

A computer class at a Mather LifeWays Cafe facility Turning pancakes into computer classes 

Twelve years ago, a nonprofit organization in Chicago began to experiment with a new type of senior center. Mather LifeWays had provided senior housing for decades but wanted to reach out to urban, working-class retirees—those who don’t require or qualify for traditional senior services but who want a sense of community and engagement as they age in place. And thus the Café Plus concept was born.

“We tried to develop a different kind of place…a community venue where we could…focus on enabling and empowering [older adults] to be healthy, engaged, renewed, and independent,” says Betsie Sassen, vice president of community initiatives for Mather LifeWays. “The initial lure into this experience…is through the restaurant, but the benefit is intended to be much more than food and nutrition....We’re really trying to engage people to take the time to invest in themselves.”

Today, three modern, inviting cafés called “Mather’s—More Than a Café” are promoted to the community using what Sassen calls “ageless marketing.” For example, seniors are only referred to as “customers” and activities are always “classes” or "events." And with the restaurant open to the entire community, one-third of the restaurant patrons aren’t seniors—even local businesses take advantage of the cafés’ wi-fi for lunch meetings. But once lured inside the intentionally small and intimate 3,800-5,000-square-foot cafés, older adults can’t help but notice the classes going in the computer lab or the fitness activities in the multipurpose classroom.

“It’s the same four walls—all of the spaces connect,” Sassen says. “What we’re trying to do is convert someone who thinks they’re just there to have pancakes into someone who’s taking a computer class.”

The model seems to be working—surveys indicate that 77 percent of the cafés’ customers have tried new activities as a result of their patronage, and 73 percent indicate that they have increased their healthy behaviors. And it’s a model that others are imitating. Sassen estimates there are now over 30 adaptations of the Café Plus concept, including cafes retrofitted inside more traditional senior centers and residences, a café featuring a used bookstore, and cafés in low-income housing developments.

“Every community is so different. It’s just not like a McDonald’s where you can plop it down and offer the same thing in Dallas, Texas, as St. Paul, Minnesota,” Sassen says. “This is more than just a bricks-and-mortar thing; you cannot just add a little coffee shop in a senior center. I do believe it’s a mindset shift of viewing and treating older adults as people with potential and possibility rather than people with limitations and problems.”

Hangout, Gym, and School 

Café-like settings are among the top wish list items for many senior centers, according to Peter Thompson, executive director of the Senior Center, Inc., a nonprofit facility in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thompson recently chaired a task force on “New Models for Senior Centers” for the National Institute of Senior Centers, and he will soon break ground himself for construction of a new 50,000-square-foot facility in Charlottesville. One feature of the new center will be an indoor/outdoor café.

“Socialization will remain paramount,” Thompson says. “We are social beings and as we age we lose a lot of our social connections. Seniors or community centers focus on creating space that is very flexible for social use—it’s not just around games but there are outdoor recreation areas, indoor/outdoor cafes, and little nooks and crannies outside of classrooms.”

Other growth areas in the new, more active senior centers seniors include physical wellness facilities, whether it’s a fitness equipment room, exercise and dance studio, pool, or even a full or half gymnasium. Ideally, according to Thompson, this indoor recreation is complemented by adjacent parkland with outdoor recreation opportunities such as walking trails, community gardens, athletic fields and courts, and picnic areas.

In Cary, North Carolina, demand for fitness classes has grown to the extent that the senior center also offers classes at a nearby community center when it would otherwise be underutilized in the mornings, according to Jody Jameson, senior center supervisor at Cary Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources, a CAPRA-accredited agency. A top retirement destination, almost 19 percent of Cary’s population is over 55. Whether because of preference or economics, seniors are often working later in life—so extended hours for senior centers are a growing trend. However, rather than simply having equipment available, Jameson likes to keep the emphasis on group fitness classes.

“You develop a friendship bond that actually makes you look forward to go exercise,” she says. “The socialization is so important no matter what your age, but especially as you get older, to have those ties and the group camaraderie. It’s just more fun.”

Wellness goes beyond the physical into what Thompson calls “intellectual wellness.” Whether it’s self-help classes on diabetes management or learning a new language before a big trip abroad, Baby Boomers are anxious to take advantage of learning opportunities. Classrooms with appropriate acoustics and technology are high on Thompson’s wish list for the new center. Increasingly, senior center classes are reaching college-level depth and are often offered in conjunction with local colleges and universities, according to Thompson.

A Continuum of Services 

One of the obstacles in rethinking the senior center is that older adults themselves vary widely in their needs and desires—and needs continue to change as people age. Gabrielle Bolarakis sees the entire range of senior programs through her work as the recreation director in Readington Township, New Jersey, and as a regional account specialist for WTS International, a 39-year-old leisure management and design consulting company based in Rockville, Maryland. WTS manages 120 leisure facilities, including some public senior centers in the Chicago area. The firm also develops and manages social centers for private 50-and-over housing developments.

Many of those attending their senior centers, Bolarakis says, are healthy, active, still-employed people who “don’t really consider themselves seniors. Many of the people in that age group actually have parents who are still alive so they’re taking their parents to the senior center.”

At the higher end, Bolarakis notes that private senior centers at gated communities incorporate basic park and recreation principles but eschew an institutional look for a country club atmosphere, often with a spa component. Some popular features include a front desk with concierge-type services, general function spaces, billiards room, library, state-of-the art fitness center, pickleball courts, technology classroom, kitchens, pools, and outdoor amenities. Convenience is paramount, especially with many residents of these gated “retirement” communities still working, according to Bolarakis.

Unlike the previous Depression-era generation of seniors, Boomer seniors are more willing to spend their money, but they expect leisure providers to maintain a strong brand and high quality.

“I don’t think that parks and rec are necessarily at a disadvantage,” Bolarakis says. “I think that the disadvantage that they have, if they have one, is that they are just trying to serve so many demographics.”

Albuquerque, New Mexico, the fourth most popular retirement destination in the country, enjoys a unique status as a “youth minority” city but with an outdoorsy atmosphere. The city therefore takes a multi-generational approach to facilities, especially in the area of fitness. And Albuquerque’s senior affairs staff face some interesting challenges—including trying to change the public’s impression of the senior population.

“You get this image of a senior that’s very frail, and playing bingo all day long, or watching TV and very sedate,” says Jorja Armijo-Brasher, director of senior affairs. “Our seniors here, with the multigenerational centers and with us changing to a 50-plus population range, have really focused on…being fit and healthy, and contributing.”

The Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center is operated by the city’s Department of Senior Affairs but patrons range from age six to senior—and the center serves youth, teens, and adults of all ages. The modern 31,000-square-foot facility includes a fitness room, game room, multipurpose classrooms, social hall, gym, and even a spray park.

“We do have social services, but I think at the multigenerational centers, you’re creating this image of a place to go and remain active,” Armijo-Brasher says. “It’s not where you go to get a service. You may go there to get a good meal, you may go there to meet friends and socialize, but you’re also going there because we have put a real emphasis on the physical fitness…."

What’s really clear, Armijo-Brasher insists, is that “our seniors need choice.”

Out and About 

Today’s senior center programming doesn’t stop at the front doors, however nice the facility. Hiking, fishing, sports, walking, and even senior motorcycle clubs often meet up at senior centers and then go off as a group.

“A senior center is not just a building," Peter Thompson in Charlottesville stresses, "but a portal for people of like interests to get out in the community and do things.”
In Madison, Wisconsin, 50+ Fitness Specialist Jean O’Leary couldn’t agree more. Madison School and Community Recreation offers a program called “I Love Madison” designed to connect and engage the 50+ population to the city, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and their own community. The group visits area farms, museums, parks, and local business establishments.

“There’s a difference between just hanging around…and being actively engaged,” O’Leary says. “If it’s a regular part of their programming, they’ll do it and hopefully that enhances their skill set for being out in the community….I think people respect seniors more if they see them out in the community, as a part of the community—they’re an asset versus a liability.”

The agency also offers the “Adventure Academy,” that sends seniors out to explore local natural areas for geocaching, canoeing, a ropes course challenge, and hiking. Even those in their mid-70s have tackled the ropes challenge, often mentioning that their children and grandchildren are doing these same activities.

Not all senior centers need grand facilities to be popular. Until Eureka, Missouri, gets its dedicated senior center completed in 2013, Ann Moore with the city Parks and Recreation Department essentially is the senior center. Despite the one-woman programming, participation has recently doubled for the monthly lunch programs and field trips that Moore organizes. She says word of mouth has spread that this is a fun place to be, and her programs even attract a lot of senior men, a group notoriously difficult to engage.

Moore keeps an eye out for seniors everywhere she goes. Although there is a senior center in town focusing on services, Moore keeps the emphasis on senior recreation. She drops off information at local churches, provides information flyers to seniors to give to other seniors, and often keeps business cards in her pocket.
“I go out into the community—I see them at the Walmart,” she says. “....I even see people I don’t know—I’ve never seen them at our events before but I do know that they live in the community.  I walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, do you know anything about the lunches that we offer?’”

Going Forward 

Since the national push to build senior centers began with the signing of the Older Americans Act in 1965, senior centers have evolved into numerous different types of facilities and operating models. Some of the different models that Peter Thompson has seen are independent nonprofits, like his own center, municipally-run centers, partnerships where the city owns the building and a nonprofit runs the center, private centers—and even a center in Charleston, South Carolina, that is managed by the local hospital system.

“Being independent works very well for us, but I would never say we’re better simply because of that,” Thompson says. “It has created a very strong ownership in our members…But I’ve also seen some of the best senior centers in the country that are municipal centers. The commitment of the community and the strength and consistency of leadership are really the key ingredients.”

Whatever the operating model or facility setup, Gabrielle Bolarakis says more active seniors are here to stay.

“I think it’s a mistake to think of the Baby Boomers as this generation that’s going to come and go. I think the active adult is here forever, so we just need to start programming for them,” Bolarkis says. “And for the most part, in traditional parks and rec, we have the facilities; we just need to provide the programs for them.”

Elizabeth Beardis Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation

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Excellent article about a nice variety of different Centers across the country, showing all are different and still work.


I see the Senior Center in Westerville, Ohio as fitting into all these progressive areas.