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

Seniors on stage

Senior theater, which Vorenberg says is one of the fastest-growing recreation trends in the country, works well for any recreational program, even with limited space or budgets, because it appeals to users' diverse, yet specific needs. It also illustrates the trend toward increasingly creative programming, says Vorenberg, who began promoting senior theater in 1978.

"When I first started working in senior theater, people still held the concept that seniors were old and poor and sick, and consequently the programming was made to accommodate that idea," Vorenberg says. "So you were left with sedentary, unstimulating activities like the Three Bs: birthdays, Bible and bingo."

The New Senior Class is a theater group that
performs in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Theater programs, in contrast, provide the opportunity for new experiences, which active seniors crave, and promote intellectual stimulation, creative self-expression and a strong social fabric, she says. It also offers enough flexibility to suit a variety of participants and program options. If the program is just getting started, a theater group only requires a few members but can easily grow with its popularity. And the variety of theater is endless: improvisation; short plays; readers theater, where members perform with scripts in hand; poetry slams; and variety shows, Vorenberg adds.

Finally, theater programs easily accommodate less active seniors, who sometimes can get left behind as the recreation industry begins to cater more toward Super Seniors. Although active, fit seniors are making the most demands (and getting the most press) in the recreation industry, planners must not forget that they still need to cater to more passive residents whose limitations may prevent them from kayaking or Tae-bo. Rec planners can include those residents in a number of ways, say those who work with seniors regularly.

First, active seniors can create and implement outreach programs for their less mobile counterparts. At Guelph's Evergreen Center, its volunteers run shuttle programs for residents with special needs to make sure they're included in activities. Next, educational programs also work well for more frail seniors, especially since their active minds may be rebelling against their bodies' limitations. Finally, planners can draw less mobile seniors into active programs with facilities that accommodate special needs. Increasingly, fitness centers large and small with sizable senior client bases have added amenities like ramps to allow wheelchair-bound users better access, equipment with touch-coded controls for vision-impaired users, and joint programs with hospitals and rehabilitation clinics.

But rec professionals who think those frail seniors drive the market are due for a rude awakening. Statistics, expert opinions and anecdotal evidence all point one way. The era of the Super Senior looms for the recreation industry, and savvy planners who want to serve this market best will seek input from these active elders to plan programming accordingly.

"The days of rocking chairs and pinochle are behind us, and the days of inline skating and day spas are ahead of us," Waldron says.

Just don't let their dust hit you in the face as they pass you by.