The roughly 76 million baby boomers currently in the U.S. are redefining what aging looks like and what it means to be a senior. Because their outlook on aging has a focus on staying physically and mentally fit, senior centers are making changes to attract the boomer population and accommodate their interests.
Senior centers used to cater exclusively to the bingo and blood pressure screening set. Sure, they’re still offered (at least blood pressure screening), but there may also be a biking club, live concerts and dances, a ceramic studio, Excel classes, sexuality workshops or beer tasting events.
Many of today’s 11,000 senior centers are targeting baby boomers in their 50s and 60s. The strategy, says Jordan Luhr, executive director of the North Shore Senior Center in Northfield, Illinois, is to reel them in when they bring their parents to the Center and discover cool offerings for themselves. This 76 million boomer demographic, after all, will soon be tomorrow’s seniors, and, hopefully, center users.
Programs That Appeal To All Ages of Older Adults
Since the stigma of aging persists, some centers are re-branding, or dropping the “senior” (read “old”) from their name. “People don’t want to be labeled, whether it’s baby boomers or older adults,” says Betsie Sassen, vice president of community initiatives for Mather’s—More Than a Café, neighborhood, Chicago-based age 50+ centers. (Note, there’s no “senior” in their name.)
Earlier this year, the Lakeville Senior Center in Lakeville, Minnesota, became The Heritage Center. Heidi Bailey, 55, rode twice a month for two years as a member of Heritage’s motorcycle club. More recently she has been going to the Center with her 86 year-old mother-in-law to learn about genealogy and get tax advice. Next on their list: a computer course. “It’s nice to have something we can do together that we both enjoy besides going out to eat,” says Bailey.
Senior centers are advertising on boomer turf via Facebook and other social media. They know that potential members are savvy, scouring the Internet to find the best deals and amenities — wherever they may be.
Those with top-of-the-line exercise facilities (indoor tracks, basketball courts, pools and varied fitness classes) or gleaming computer labs cost a fraction of what they would at most gyms or schools — perhaps $20/year versus hundreds of dollars. (Lakeville members pay $18/year if they’re single, for instance, $34 for a couple and $30 for a non-resident.)
Centers also aim to please younger members, some staying open on weekends and evenings — convenient for those who work, have young grandchildren to babysit, or volunteer by day.
The challenge, say experts, is to have rich programming that appeals to both the old-old and the young-old (chair yoga and power yoga, tai chi and karaoke).
5 Innovative Centers Around the Country
1. The Senior Center in Charlottesville, Virginia
Trips to historic plantations, food trucks in the parking lot and brain fitness workshops are on the schedule, along with more than 100 other programs and special events. They have a busy computer lab with weekly sessions for Mac users, Windows workshops and music galore, including a wind instrument group, jazz band and barbershop ensemble.
2. Mather’s—More Than A Café in Chicago, Illinois
“We took the look and feel of a senior center and turned it upside down,” says Kate Paz, director of the Program Without Walls at Mather LifeWays. Forget institutional white walls. “We want it to be warm, comfortable, and inviting,” she says. It’s also unique: each of the three “non-senior” centers in Chicago has a restaurant in the front open to all ages and the public. You can bring your grandkids, meet up with neighbors, or grab a bite with your Mathers gym buddies. If you want to take language, fitness, current event classes, or a myriad of others, and use the facilities, however, you must be age 55+. The restaurant/courses concept for older adults has been replicated in 33 cities and 16 states, and in South Korea and Japan.
3. The Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center in Iowa City, Iowa
This center has served older adults age 50+ since 1981. They offer a variety of activities, including volunteer opportunities to “support independence and encourage involvement in the community.” In addition to the regular class offerings, they have their own TV studio! Stay tuned for more programs atypical of your grandmother’s senior center.
4. The Summit in Grand Prairie, Texas
With a cappuccino and wine bar, a player piano, comfy leather chairs, and outdoor concerts and dances, there’s nothing “senior center” about this place. In fact, it bills itself as a premiere 50+ club. General manager Linda Long thinks of it as “a fitness center and country club combined.” What’s drawing boomers, says Long, is the exercise amenities and the focus on wellness. Members range from their 50’s to centenarians.
5. The Center for Balanced Living in New York City, New York
With one-on-one wellness coaching, the focus at this New York City center is on fitness (body conditioning, cardio strength, Zumba, tap, Pilates, meditation) intellectual stimulation, and timely topics. It might be dealing with body changes, understanding spirituality, taking care of aging parents or finding balance in your life. On the lighter side, there are cooking classes (led by a dietician), dance and theatre groups, and painting.
Do you attend a senior center in your area? What activities are your favorites, and what do you wish it had? Share your thoughts in the comments below.