Feature Article - January 2017
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Coming of Age

Shifting Trends in Design & Programming for Active Older Adults

By Rick Dandes

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."