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Not Your Mother’s Senior Center: Senior Centers Today

By Sally AbrahmsApril 5, 2019
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Last Updated: April 5, 2019

The roughly 74 million baby boomers currently in the United States are redefining what aging looks like and what it means to be a senior. Because their outlook on aging has a focus on staying mentally and physically fit, senior centers are making changes to attract the boomer population and accommodate their interests.

Read more about five innovative senior centers across the U.S. and the activities they make available to seniors today.

How Baby Boomers Are Changing Seniors Centers Today

Decades ago, senior centers catered exclusively to the bingo and blood pressure screening set. Sure, they’re still offered, but there may also be a beer and wine tasting event, biking club, ceramic studio, dances and live concerts there.

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 74 million boomer demographic, after all, will soon be tomorrow’s seniors.

Since the stigma of aging persists, some centers are also re-branding, removing the “senior” 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 Cafe, neighborhood, Chicago-based age 50+ centers. 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. Next on their list: a computer course. “It’s nice to have something we can do together that we both enjoy,” says Bailey.

Senior centers also aim to please younger members, some staying open on evenings and weekends — convenient for those who work, have young grandchildren to babysit, or volunteer by day.

The challenge, experts say, is to have rich programming that appeals to both generations.

5 Innovative Senior Centers in the U.S.

Here are five senior centers who are making changes today to attract baby boomers with activities and classes that accommodate both their and their parents’ interests:

1. Mather’s — More Than a Cafe 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… 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 current event, fitness or a myriad of other classes and use the facilities, however, you must be age 55+. This concept for older adults has been replicated in 16 states and 33 cities.

2. 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, meditation, Pilates and tap) intellectual stimulation and timely topics. It might be dealing with finding balance, body changes, taking care of aging parent or understanding spirituality. On the lighter side, there are cooking classes (led by a dietician), dance and theatre groups and painting.

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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 also have their own TV studio! Stay tuned for more programs atypical of your mother’s senior center.

4. The Senior Center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Brain fitness workshops, food trucks in the parking lot and trips to historic plantations are on the schedule, along with more than 100 other programs and special events. They also have a busy computer lab with weekly sessions for Mac users as well as Windows workshops, and music galore, including a barbershop ensemble, jazz band and wind instrument group.

5. The Summit in Grand Prairie, Texas.

With a cappuccino and wine bar, 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 country club and fitness center combined.” What’s drawing boomers, says Long, is the exercise amenities and the focus on wellness. Members range from their 50s to centenarians.

Have you visited any senior centers in your area? Which activities are your favorites and which activities do you wish your senior center had? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Sally Abrahms