Coming of Age

Shifting Trends in Design & Programming for Active Older Adults


A surging population of active adults in their mid-50s and older has caused administrators of public and private recreation centers to rethink the way they design their facilities and deliver programming. As older adults embrace their human potential and unrealized abilities, their expectations are changing, said Colin Milner, CEO, International Council on Active Aging.

"In the past," he said, "recreational offerings for older adults were rather passive: bingo, bridge and shuffleboard."

No more.

"Today these offerings are much more active, such as fitness programs, 50-plus clubs that include adventure travel and sports. The biggest shift has been in the attitude of what people are capable of doing and the diversity of programs and services being offered to meet this shift," Milner said.

For organizations, this presents the challenge of being increasingly innovative when creating programs and environments—focusing more on function and capabilities, and less on age. This simple shift is changing everything, Milner added, "and not just our expectations for growing older, or our views on aging. It is also demanding new models to better meet these new expectations."

This is why the older-adult market will challenge the creativity, strategic thinking, planning and implementation of those designing active ager programs, and why one-size-fits-all solutions are likely to fail miserably with these individuals. To address this group, you will first need to determine their wants and needs, Milner noted. Once you do, think about what kinds of products or services you will create and deliver to meet the expectations of this large, diverse population.

Staffing your active ager programs will also require specialized training. With fewer people entering the labor force, and the field of aging in particular, Milner said, "Where will your future staff come from? And how can you ensure they have the expertise needed to meet your consumers' expectations?"

A good place to start, he suggested, is with a review of the competency levels of your staff. "Keep in mind that people are one of the significant ongoing costs for most organizations. Poor people choices and poor training equal poor results," Milner said.

Once you have established your staff's current level of expertise, set out to enhance it with additional training. "Yes," Milner said, "this will cost you money. But incompetent staff will cost you much more over time in terms of lost business, a poor reputation and a disappointing return on investment."

When looking to train your staff, seek out universities, colleges or certification providers that offer courses geared toward working with an older population. Then, make sure these courses focus on active aging and wellness as a way to support independence for older adults. "Training staff with outdated information will do nothing but continue poor results," Milner said. "You can also partner with associations, governmental groups and content providers to enhance staff development in areas ranging from communications to programming. In addition, consider seeking out student interns. This may help you build a solid base for future recruitment. No matter which avenues you use, it's vital for your organization to have the right people on staff and the right educational partner."

The Key Word Is 'Active'

Active aging covers such a wide span of age and ability, said Mark Bodien, partner and director, Sports and Recreation Studio, Moody Nolan, Austin, Texas. "We now start defining agers at 55 and up. But we all age at different rates. There are some people who can be active into their 90s. This means a 40-year span of individuals with different degrees of ability."

Absolutely right, agreed Andy Stein, design project manager, Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture, Denver. "The trend right now among recreation facility managers for active agers," Stein said, "reflects the sea change between the greatest generation of seniors to the boomer generation. We've typically seen senior centers in the past as passive centers, places for people to socialize, mixed in with a little bit of education, game rooms, card rooms, lounges and some classrooms. But there was little in the way of activities geared toward keeping your body fit. This is the big change right now, and what comes with that is the whole notion of what a senior center is."

Even the designation "active ager" is falling by the wayside in favor of "active adult," Stein said. "There seems to be such a stigma on passive senior designation. That was about their own parents. Active adults today want to redefine what it means to be an elder in their community."

That is the key to the big issues facing programmers and designers—switching from passive to active aging centers, while at the same time taking a complete wellness approach. "It's no longer just about socializing," Stein said. "As a firm, we design these facilities for mind, body and soul. You develop your mind. Then you develop your body through physical activity and your soul through interaction with your peers. Your quality of life is improved through socialization.


"No question," Stein continued, "the program needs of active agers has changed how we design a building. In the past, the centers we developed had absolutely no space dedicated to physical, active activities. Now we are incorporating fitness space, gyms and warm-water pools. If the recreation space is essentially a standalone active aging center, we are looking at regular fitness zones that take into consideration people's accessibility."

For the team at Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, of Austin, Texas, their transformative designs began with a major, challenging project completed in 2010, said Stephen Springs, a senior principal with the firm. "It is a $23 million facility called The Summit, in Grand Prairie, Texas. Financed by a sales tax bond, it took the concept of senior centers to a whole other level," he explained. "In fact, this was when we stopped calling these facilities senior centers, and began referring to them as recreation centers for adults."

The Summit was a milestone project, not only for Brinkley Sargent Wiginton, but also in the recreation facility market for active agers. "When we began our preliminary research and design sketches, we had no reference, nothing to go on in the public sector," he said. So, as a model, Springs looked at successful facilities in the private sector, such as Robson Ranch, an adult active luxury community in Denton, Texas.

"We conceived of a multigenerational facility within the senior population, which had not been thought of in that way before," Springs said. "We realized there were really two distinct generations: the active ager and the traditional senior veteran."

Once Springs had that epiphany—that his firm had to build a center for both traditional seniors and the boomer generation—"it drove our design," he said.

Each generation would have its own amenities, its own attractions—their own turf, in a sense. But it would all be under one roof, and it all had to work together.

Designing for Innovation

Physically, The Summit does not have wings. "It is a linear building," Springs said, describing the layout. "To one side of the central entry we have the passive side. The other side, the active side. This design made it easy for users to know where to go for one or another type of activity. The social spaces are in between, in the middle, the lounge, the lobby."

Each generation of "agers" has their own space at The Summit, Springs said. But there is also a common area in between that serves both. It allows for free-flow interaction, where people could do one side one day or another side another day. "The spaces are completely available for clients to flow either way without having to sign in," he noted. "We think this created the best of both worlds for whatever people wanted to do."

The feedback on this arrangement has been quite instructive. What users liked most, Springs said, "is it got them out of their homes and into a social environment, even if they weren't doing a lot of physically active things. At least they weren't at home on their couch. They were doing programs and interacting with others. There is a tremendous benefit to that alone."


An unintended consequence of this setup has been the interaction between the traditional senior and baby boomers. "We're seeing the creations of mother figure, father figure mentor relationships," Springs said. "And that grew out of them all being in the same building. Boomers and seniors bonded. They take classes together. We saw spaces that weren't territorial; it was no longer older seniors here, boomers there. The building broke those boundaries down."

Barker Rinker Seacat has begun developing what they call "life studios." A life studio might be a little bit smaller, dedicated personal fitness space that can accommodate a small group, explained Andy Stein. "You can also program that space for personal training or massages, on-demand fitness, therapy—smaller activities." When it comes to fitness activities, Stein said, "we see active agers as someone who doesn't necessarily want to be in the mix with lots of people, not only for just the intimidation factor, but also sound and noise starts to bother them and they don't want that as part of their space."

For the pools, Stein said, "we are looking at warm-water exercise pools, not just therapy pools. Something that can offer more diverse activities, those that limit wear and tear because they are low-impact. I've seen many facilities do aqua Zumba, aqua aerobics, movement classics, but still incorporating some deep water for people who want to swim the laps and get involved in therapy sessions in deep-water areas."

Gymnasiums are also getting smaller in these facilities. "Active agers don't need a full-length high school basketball court," Stein explained. "Some people will still be playing basketball, but it's rare. We're looking at smaller courts that offer all the same sports, but just not a full-range offering. Pickleball, exercise class … a smaller footprint still allows you to have fitness classes. We're talking multi-use space, but still allowing for traditional activities of a gym. That's a key point: This generation of active agers are busy. They don't want to just play cards or meet in a library or just socialize. A lot of them are still working, consulting, volunteering, so we offer shared co-working spaces and classrooms that incorporate technology and collaborative spaces."

Designing the User Experience

Designers at Moody Nolan concentrate on offering "different levels of privacy that folks want, particularly when they're being active or exercising," Bodien said. "That means with our swimming pools, people can get in and out of the water without being on display. When working out on equipment, we offer patrons smaller group settings, for example in private rooms, particularly when they are not sure of themselves. You don't worry as much about that in a general facility."

The chief administrator at the senior center in Parker, Colo., understands the nuances of aging in his community and has responded accordingly. Aside from the pickleball craze that is sweeping the country, said Jim Cleveland, Parks, Recreation and Open Space Director, Town of Parker Parks and Recreation Department, "we have experienced growing interest in several areas, including aquatics, fitness, sports, enrichment and cultural programs."

Aqua aerobics continues to be a mainstay, Cleveland said, "but active agers love to use our lazy river and therapy pool for numerous water-based programs."

Sports programs continue to grow, he said, and for active agers the motivation to participate is much more focused on being fit instead of finishing first. The priority of winning games has given way to creating relationships with other participants. As many active agers transition to retirement, they are looking to replace relationships left behind in the workplace with new friendships and social interaction.

From a facility perspective, Cleveland suggested, operators should consider the addition of a hearing loop or telecoil, to assist patrons with hearing aids or cochlear implants. "With these systems," he said, "hearing-impaired patrons can more easily discern the sound source without background noise distracting the message. Facility enhancements like this can truly add to the enjoyment of the patron experience."

Active agers value relationships and social outings as much as the fitness and wellness aspects of recreation, Cleveland advised. While younger participants are eager to make efficient use of their visit, active agers enjoy the experience for more than just than physical benefits. Programming and facility staff need to be aware of the value of relationships with active agers and cater their service delivery to meet this expectation.

Finally, Cleveland said, "make sure your public spaces and lobbies are designed to accommodate active agers who may wish to socialize before or after their class or workout. Not only does this promote the creation of stronger ties between guests, it can build loyalty to your facility or program by creating a community among your patrons."

Remember that active agers enjoy the outdoors. "We have seen use of our trail system steadily increase as seniors enjoy walking, biking and outdoor fitness stations," Cleveland said. "Our community has experienced the formation of many self-directed walking and cycling clubs, and they often share their experiences on social media."

Finally, he said, look for ways you can engage your active agers in volunteer opportunities. "From 'adopting' public gardens to acting as trail rangers to monitor our trail network, seniors have filled an increasingly important need in our community. Our performing arts center has discovered a wealth of volunteers among the active agers. In exchange for free tickets to performances, our volunteers assist with ticket taking and ushering patrons to their seats. These volunteers love to feel valued, and they provide an essential service to our operation."