Feature Article - May/June 2002
Find a printable version here

Beyond BINGO

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

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Fitness is a must
Sun City Grand in Phoenix was built with active
seniors in mind.

Along with technology, fitness has come to dominate the list of must-haves for recreation facilities at senior communities, Waldron adds. Since Del Webb caters to homebuyers over 55, its recreational facilities provide a good idea of what seniors are demanding on the recreation and fitness front. When the first Sun City opened in the Phoenix area in 1960, its recreation center featured a pool, a shuffleboard court, card room and space for sedentary activity. Today, its Sun City Grand community in suburban Phoenix, which will be home to 10,000 residents when complete, incorporates several recreation centers, including the 35,000-square-foot Cimarron Center, with a 7,000-square-foot cardiovascular/weight center, a lap pool, "resort" pool with zero-depth shore and day spa.

"We can't build our fitness centers big enough," Waldron says. When Sun City Grand opened its first recreation center, it originally planned a 2,500-square-foot fitness area but immediately doubled the size based on resident feedback. And its programming, driven by resident demand, reflects every fitness trend out there.

"Spinning came very quickly to Sun City, along with Tai Chi, kickboxing, military workouts, Pilates and 'boot camp' aerobics," he says.

When planning fitness centers that cater to older clients, however, managers may want to double-check their equipment rosters to ensure meeting seniors' needs.

For example, the Health First Pro-Health and Fitness Center in Melbourne, Fla., which serves a sizable senior clientele, includes upper-body ergometers, which look like bicycles for the arms, to give a cardiovascular workout to users with limited leg mobility, says Bill Capron, operations manager. They also feature recumbent exercise bikes, which many seniors find more comfortable, and the latest generation of step and cross-training machines that are easier on aging knees.

Aquatics also play a major role in senior fitness programs, with lap swimming, water walking and aquarobics increasingly popular with older adults. With age, however, pool needs may differ slightly, Capron adds. Seniors, especially those with arthritis, prefer warmer water. Many fitness and rec facilities, as a result, now offer warm-water pools targeted toward seniors. At Health First, the indoor pool generally is heated to between 81 and 84 degrees F, a compromise temperature, Capron says.

"The lap swimmers think it's too warm, and the exercisers think it's too cool," he says

To offer a warmer alternative, Health First recently took over a nearby pool originally run by the Easter Seals program and uses it as a warm pool, with a temperature around 90 degrees F.

It's a social thing

In fitness centers and other recreational facilities, those involved with programming must also keep a strong social component in mind. For seniors, recreation and fitness activities often replace the social interaction and structure that work and child rearing provided for much of their lives.

A strong social component is a crucial part
of any senior program.

"Our seniors don't come here just for fitness—it's a social event to them," says Health First's Capron. "They're here on the same days, at the same time, to meet with the same crowd."

One unexpected benefit to the social element, Capron wryly notes, is that seniors generally don't mind waiting for a piece of equipment.

Filling the social hole that retirement can leave is vital for senior programs, agrees Bonnie Vorenberg, of Portland, Ore.-based Senior Theatre, which creates and supports senior theater programs across the country. Older adults need an outlet for several important parts of their lives that can break down with retirement: social contact, intellectual stimulation and creative expression.

"What happens with senior recreation is that this stuff essentially replaces work," Vorenberg explains. "One of the most important products of senior theater, for example, is the social contact and esprit de corps. Once people retire, their social contacts are sometimes restricted and self-esteem and motivation can suffer. You don't have your work friends, you don't have your schedule, you don't have people depending on you. That part especially, that being needed, is critical."

To keep those social ties and to promote the sense of being needed, service and volunteering also make up an important part of seniors' recreational activities, according to Del Webb's Waldron, and Sun City has tried to facilitate that desire with a number of programs. Many Phoenix-area Sun City residents take part in Project Wisdom, a mentoring program where seniors work with disadvantaged children from nearby schools. Since most of those children speak Spanish, residents wanted to communicate with them better, and Spanish language classes at Sun City have become popular as a result, Waldron says.

For active seniors, education is an integral part of recreation as well. While young students may not buy the concept that education is fun, the senior population has embraced it. And education doesn't mean basket weaving. At Sun City Grand, Del Webb recently opened a "student union" building for its Senior University program, created in partnership with Arizona State University. For only $99 a year, residents can take up to five academic classes taught by volunteer instructors. Popular topics include history, philosophy, world religions and foreign languages.

Educational programs also merge with fitness interests for seniors. The Health First Pro-Health and Fitness Center continually has expanded its wellness classes on a variety of topics such as osteoporosis, back problems and maintaining a healthy heart. In Vorenberg's theater programs, education plays a large part as well. She creates theater viewing programs, where seniors attend plays and then follow them up with a speaker program, where theater professionals analyze the script and characterizations, or talk about costuming, casting and acting techniques.