Web Exclusive - May 2015
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Programming Across the Ages

An Inclusive Attitude Gets Active Adults & Seniors Involved

By Jessica Royer Ocken

And about that dining program: The two Henderson facilities, as well as The Summit in Grand Prairie, offer meals for their patrons, which makes it easier for them to come and stay a while, finding opportunities to socialize, meet friends and break up the monotony of their days. "Social isolation has twice the health risk as obesity," reported Milner. "And think about all the [resources] we're tossing at obesity. But what are we doing for isolation? If you can make your center a social hub, it's a good thing."

Other desires this portion of the population may have?

  • Excellent service: When designing and completing The Summit, Grand Prairie went out of its way to make the center high-end and luxurious, noted Long. "It has amenities like a country club," she said. And the customer service to match.
  • Staff at Henderson's older adult facilities offers "high-touch customer service," said Becker. "They know patrons by name, know who's going away for the holidays, who is feeling under the weather, who has experienced a loss, who just needs a kind word. Patrons enjoy that feeling of belonging when they're greeted by name every day."

    Customer service representatives at older adult centers should be educated about the health issues of the population they're serving, said Milner. And if they are, they tend not to turn their backs on older people, but embrace them. "You can have all the best facilities, but if people are ageist or are saying, 'Yes, dearie, let me help,' right off the bat you're going to turn off the market."

  • Volunteer opportunities: Becker said the staff in Henderson rapidly noted a desire to give back among their 50-plus patrons, so they now have a "very robust" active adult volunteer program, which recently logged more than 25,000 service hours in one year. Their Heritage Park Senior Facility has an award-winning volunteer docent greeter program, which welcomes first-time visitors personally and provides them with a tour and registration assistance. Other volunteers serve meals, craft items for foster children and military members deployed overseas, serve as tutors, and help out as library aides, Becker reported.

How Can Community and Recreation Centers Meet These Needs?

As the over-50 population continues to grow, it will likely make more and more sense to create facilities specifically for them and catering to their needs. After all, The Summit's Long noted, there's quite a diversity of interests and abilities even within this group. Someone who is 55 and not yet retired has much different needs from someone 85, not working, and living alone. But at The Summit, "all the ages get along well," she reported. "Fifty to 100-plus, they help each other out." And, she said, a dedicated facility "makes seniors feel special."

But don't despair if a freestanding active adult center is not financially feasible for your community at this moment. ICAA's Milner believes it's completely possible to engage older adults in an all-ages community center. He's seen both adults-only hours and separate programming for older adults work in various places, but "I'm a big believer in community," he said. "That's why recreation centers and community centers really have a leg up on the commercial fitness club industry. In many instances they're already more inclusive. The goal is to have policies that support interaction as opposed to exclusion."

He offered the following tips to get everything from your programming to the layout of your facility in its most widely welcoming form.

Focus on interests, not age: Rather than billing a class as open to ages 50+, focus on the needs it addresses. "A marathon runner at 80 has the same interests as one at 20, 30 or 50," Milner said. "They want to train as best they can." An obese 20-year-old who has a hard time on the stairs may need to join a "Sit and Be Fit" class rather than traditional aerobics, he added. Heart health can also be an area of interest for people of all ages. And if you're working to attract a broad spectrum of guests, be sure you offer classes at a variety of times so those still working or who prefer not to be out in the evenings have an opportunity to participate.

At the same time, make sure at least some of your programs "apply to the marketplace," said Milner, who reported seeing younger trainers at his gym trying to talk older clients into high-intensity classes and other "really weird stuff." Instead, he recommends including classes that work on balance, fall prevention, and the strength needed to get up and down off the ground—ways to keep aging adults mobile and able to do the things they want to do. For help boosting this aspect of your programming, consider bringing in an established program like SilverSneakers.

But whatever you offer, "try not to label things 'Hey! This is because you're old!'" Milner said. Avoiding this may not just open these offerings to all ages, it may also help you attract older adults. "No one wants to be called old," he said. "My grandmother at 102 talks about other old people. She doesn't mean herself."

Drawing in the "active adult" population—those 50 to 65-ish—has been a particular struggle in Henderson, noted Becker. "Many of them still work and don't really see themselves as 'seniors,'" she said, so getting them to visit a building with the word 'senior' in its name—or perhaps even select a program that seems geared toward seniors—can be difficult. "I would definitely encourage any community building a new age-restricted facility to seriously consider not using the word 'senior' in its name unless it is a true senior center," she said.