Web Exclusive - May 2015
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Programming Across the Ages

An Inclusive Attitude Gets Active Adults & Seniors Involved

By Jessica Royer Ocken

You may have noticed it in your community—or if you haven't, you may notice it soon. By 2017, one of every two people in the United States will be over age 50, reports Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA). And if 40 is the new 30, 50 is the new 40, and so on, this population is going to be plenty active. Many of them haven't even retired yet—and don't plan to anytime soon.

In 2010, the city of Grand Prairie, Texas, constructed the first "baby boomer facility" in the country, and they did it not because they had a passion for older adults, but because they wanted to make Grand Prairie the most enticing place it could be—"a city people want to move to," explained City Manager Tom Hart in a video about the project. And they realized the population they needed to focus on pleasing was those aged 50 and up. "We want to provide our citizens with the best facilities we can, and active adults and seniors are becoming a larger portion of the population day by day," said City Council Member Jim Swafford.

And this is not just a Texas phenomenon. "We've been talking about the population aging for a long time, but now it's here," Milner said. "And it's biting us in the butt because we've been slow to respond." Lots of senior centers are rebranding themselves as "active aging centers," he noted, and he anticipates that commercial fitness centers aimed at the over-50 crowd like Nifty after Fifty will soon be as common and commonly known as 24 Hour Fitness is now.

But to be truly effective in meeting the needs and gaining the enthusiasm of this active adult population, more than just a new name and someone checking ages at the door will be necessary. Milner cites inclusiveness and a common-sense approach to the abilities and interests of these adults as keys to success, whether you're operating a facility exclusively for those over 50 or a community center that strives to welcome all ages.

And the best news is, there are more and more communities getting the hang of this and finding ways to do it well. So read on for suggestions and best-practice examples that will have you engaging this growing segment of your constituents in no time.

What Do Active Adults and Seniors Want?

Commercial fitness centers have a "youth-centric, perfect-body focus," Milner said. (If you've been inside one lately, you've probably noticed.) The interiors are funky and modern, and the equipment the most cutting-edge available. "Years ago it was called the health club industry," Milner said, "and that's what we should be focused on now: health!" Yes, you can improve your health by being fit, he added, but the older population responds to a broader concept of health, "not a tight butt."

Members of The Summit, Grand Prairie's "Premier 50+ Club," report feeling comfortable in the atmosphere of the workout areas. No one is looking for dates in their cute little outfits, noted one female guest, and the place isn't overrun with screaming children, added another man in a video about the center. "People like exercising with people their own age, so that pulls them in," said Linda Long, The Summit's manager.

And in addition to a well-stocked workout area, The Summit and facilities like it, including two older adult centers operated by the Henderson, Nev., park district, also offer a variety of exercise and health classes that address multiple aspects of wellness: physical, social, emotional, intellectual and more. The Summit is proud to have something for everyone—from pickleball and spa-style massages to beer and wine tastings, nutrition seminars and a Suddenly Single support group.

Henderson's senior facilities "host yoga classes, cooking workshops, computer skills classes, dance classes and events, and excursions off property," said Kim Becker, public information officer for the City of Henderson, Nev. "The staff does a nice job offering a balance of programs for active adults as well as those who are more sedentary."

And while Long acknowledges that the fitness center at The Summit is what brings many people through the doors (you should see their fabulous pool!), there's also a huge social component to the services they provide. While younger people may dash into a facility, put on their headphones and grind their way through a workout before dashing back out, older adults (particularly those who have retired) tend to have more free time. Guests are waiting at the door when The Summit opens in the morning, and the staff often has to shoo the last visitors out when it's time to lock up at night, Long reported.

Becker notes that southern Nevada tends to be a transient place, as well as a location many people retire to, so quite a few of the older adults in the Henderson community (which is just outside Las Vegas) tend to be there alone—with family out of state, or no family at all. "For them, I think their social needs are just as important as their programming needs," she said. "Our activity, craft and game rooms are popular gathering places for people to socialize and bond, and the same is true for the congregate dining program."