Feature Article - July 2018
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All Grown Up

Innovative Programs for Active Older Adults

By Dave Ramont

Perhaps you've heard the saying "70 is the new 60" or "60 is the new 50," in reference to someone's age. Well, it is true that many older adults these days are more interested than ever in staying physically fit, and the mature market—typically considered to include those 55 and older—is the fastest growing fitness market in the world. In 2010, 13 percent of the U.S. population was at least 65 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and five years later that had risen to nearly 15 percent. And it's estimated that the over-65 population will grow around 38 percent between 2015 and 2025, to nearly 66 million older adults.

So as the baby boomers are booming into their golden years, what are some ways that parks, municipalities and private entities are stepping up efforts to engage and accommodate this population, whether through fitness or social offerings? Teresa Grodsky has worked for more than 40 years in parks and recreation in Illinois, mostly with older adults, and has spoken at many state and regional conferences. Currently she's the active adult coordinator for the Addison Park District, and she said that facilities should experiment with different programs, since patrons' tastes and desires are always evolving. "Don't be afraid to get rid of the old tired stuff and bring in new stuff," she said. "You may have things that you've always done even though it's just not working, but you don't have the heart to just pitch it."

Grodsky added that since they cater to people in their 50s to those in their 90s, it can be challenging. "The big worry for us about five or 10 years ago was that the baby boomers are coming, and what are we going to do. Well, they're already here and already getting integrated into the programs, so it's just the volume of them. We just have to be prepared for that and for the different things that they like to do."

So what do the "younger" folks—those in their 50s and 60s—like to participate in? "They really want the new, more active kinds of things," Grodsky said, which might include volleyball or softball. "With the fitness stuff, you really have to watch what the trends are."

For instance, she said that lately, pickleball has become huge. "At our fitness center, we offer open pickleball; you pay to be there, and can play pickleball with anybody. That's typically a younger group."

Grodsky has also noticed more adventure sports being offered, mentioning a senior group she knows of that has partnered with L.L. Bean to offer kayaking and archery, with L.L. Bean providing the necessary equipment. "I have a friend who took a group to an indoor skydiving place! So I think we just have to not be afraid to try anything."

On the other end of the spectrum, Grodsky said they still cater to many people who are in their 80s or 90s. Every Friday they have drop-in canasta and pinochle, and Mahjong is currently very popular. They host a senior club that meets every Tuesday, and often more than 100 people show up.

Many older adults these days are more interested than ever in staying physically fit, and the mature market—typically considered to include those 55 and older—is the fastest growing fitness market in the world.

"They come and eat sweet rolls and play cards and play dominoes—it's a very social thing," she said. "Typically they had a speaker or a program of some sort, and they hated it! They asked me when I came not to do it because this was their social time."

She explained that many of the oldest folks still drive a car and live in their own home. "We have so many vibrant people in their late 80s and 90s, and that has a lot to do with the fact that there have been programs for them to be in. In fact, we have so many 90s that we started a Nifty Nineties club, every year honoring the people who have turned 90."

Grodsky added that when asked about their secrets of longevity, amid the usual jokes about chasing women or drinking martinis, many say that simply having a place to go every week has been crucial.

But make no mistake, many of the oldest patrons are interested in fitness offerings as well, along with the younger seniors. "We do have an exercise class here three times a week at the community rec center, and it's a drop-in type program," Grodsky said, adding that it's only $1 to participate. "But our fitness center does have more than basic exercise. There's Zumba Gold, chair yoga and tai chi. We have SilverSneakers here at the fitness center."

She said they also have a pool that is very popular, especially for water aerobics. "They know how good the water is for your joints. Things you couldn't do in regular exercise class you certainly could do in water aerobics. The kind of fitness things that are available for active adults is huge now."

SilverSneakers is a fitness program for those 65 and older, which comes free with qualifying health plans, including Medicare. The program includes unlimited access to every participating fitness center and gym in their network, numbering more than 14,000 locations. Amenities such as treadmills, weights and pools are included. There are also fitness classes available, led by certified instructors at not only gyms, but also parks, community centers and other local venues. The classes can be modified for different fitness levels, and focus on muscle strength and range of movement, stability and balance. The more than 70 types of classes include tai chi, boot camp and yoga.

While some private fitness and health clubs are actively marketing to older adults, most are not yet tapping into this growing market, according to Dan Ritchie, whose broad background in the fitness industry includes training and management. Ritchie specializes in training for special populations, such as those with Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's or cerebral palsy. In 2014 he was named Personal Trainer of the Year by Personal Fitness Professional magazine.