Feature Article - May/June 2002
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Beyond BINGO

Marketing and programming for seniors nowadays is more rock climbing than rocking chairs

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Programs powered by seniors

Recreation professionals don't need the AARP's hefty research budget to figure out what seniors want, however. They can simply ask their seniors about programming, let them take the reins for planning, and see what they accomplish.

This has worked well for the Evergreen Seniors Centre in Guelph, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, where residents demonstrate the will to make things happen, the desire to learn, the urge to handle their own affairs, and the mindset to transcend traditional "senior" activities.

"You can't underestimate the senior population," says Kelly McAlpine, Evergreen administrator. "These are people with a lot of knowledge and experience, and they're comfortable setting their own path."

The Evergreen Seniors Centre, which opened 10 years ago, was pretty much created by its 3,000 members, McAlpine says. They raised $1.2 million to build the center themselves and play a large part in running it, handling virtually all operations. An army of almost 500 volunteers handles front-desk operations and program registration and runs the dining room and cash register, among other things.

Sun City Grand Granite Falls golf course.

Evergreen's programming reflects the "can-do" spirit of its seniors. McAlpine notes that while it offers traditional programming (she puts belly dancing into this category) some of the most popular offerings include wilderness hikes and dragon-boat races. For the uninitiated, this popular Toronto-area passion consists of racing small- to medium-sized boats decked out to look like dragons on area lakes, including Guelph Lake and Lake Ontario, where Evergreen seniors took part in the finals.

And Evergreen members dictate programming, frequently approaching the staff with new ideas.

"We're not dragging seniors into things," McAlpine says. "They're pulling us, and we're out of breath trying to keep up."

Evergreen also demonstrates another burgeoning area of senior interest: computer literacy. When the city purchased a software system to handle program registration for its recreation programs, it originally left Evergreen with the existing paper method, since the registration desk was such a popular volunteer staffing spot and social stop. But Evergreen's seniors decided they to take a crack at the system, deciding to create a hostess desk to retain the "chatting" spot. Aided by trainers from the software company, the center's seniors, many of whom had never used a computer, started with computer solitaire to familiarize themselves with the machines and worked their way up to mastering the system. This success bred computer confidence—the center now has its own Web site, created and maintained by senior volunteers.

Interest in computers has blossomed in the last few years, agrees John Waldron, director of public affairs for Phoenix-based Del Webb Corp., the nation's largest builder of active adult residential communities. At Del Webb communities across the country, including the Phoenix area, Huntley, Ill., and Virginia, computer rooms have grown from closet-size spaces to 2,500-square-foot telecom centers.

"Technology is huge for our clients," he says.