Beyond BINGO

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

By Margaret Ahrweiler

You think you're keeping pace at the neighborhood running track until a lean man with the leg muscles of your dreams passes you several times, his fine white hair bobbing.

You and your mate pause, winded and sweaty, near the peak of a mountain hike in the California desert. Two grandmotherly types with walking sticks give a cheery hello as they breeze past, nary a drop of perspiration on them.


Embarking on a 12-mile drive to a state park along Florida's windswept Atlantic coast, you pass two bicyclists with shorts exposing varicose veins, only to see them pull in the park shortly after you.*

"Who are these people?" you ask. They are the senior recreation market, and if your facility hasn't recognized these scenarios reflect their interests, it's time to learn. They are active, they are affluent, they are diverse and they don't like shuffleboard.

A few facts to take into account: According to U.S. Census statistics, seniors 65 and older make up 13 percent of the population—34 million—and will be 63 million strong by 2025 as the Baby Boomers age. They will be healthier and more affluent than any elderly generation before them. Seniors aged 55 and older now make up 23 percent of the nation's health-club members, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, up from only 9 percent in 1987. Memberships for those 55 and up segment have increased 114 percent in the last three years, while in the same period, the number of members aged 18 to 35 decreased by 14 percent, as that group's demographics shrunk.

In response to these demographic trends, the AARP, the granddaddy of senior organizations, has made fitness and physical activity a priority, in both research and in programming. To get a better handle what they could do to promote fitness, AARP researchers broke seniors into four groups: Do-Nothings, Planners, Tryers and Habitual Exercisers (see sidebar).

"We know that the senior population is becoming more and more active, and we'll see even more of that as the Baby Boomers age, but we also know that 34 percent of the population age 55 and older is sedentary and want them to be more active," explains Margaret Hawkins, AARP campaign manager, health. "We're going for the people who are interested but not quite getting it. With help, they can turn into Habitual Exercisers."

Sun City Grand in Phoenix was built with active
seniors in mind, as was the community's Granite
Falls golf course.

Hawkins emphasizes that the AARP wants to educate seniors about how to stay physically active (she says many seniors prefer that term over exercise, which its connotations of spandex and drudgery).

"They understand the benefits; we don't need to keep beating that into them," she says. "What they want to know is how much to do and how to get started—a translation of the guidelines."

The method the AARP chose to spread the word speaks volumes about modern seniors and recreation. Instead of, say, national Tai Chi programs, the AARP last year kicked off the Tri-Umph Classic, an annual series of triathlons. It consists of a 400-meter swim, a 20K bike ride and a 5K run and is sanctioned by USA Triathlon.

As a pilot program, the Tri-Umph took place in six cities across the country and focused on training as much as the actual event to snare the Planners and Tryers, who are interested in fitness but having a hard time getting on track. Participants could compete as part of a relay team or do all three events themselves. Everyone who registered received a training manual with a 12-week program and could also sign up for an 8-week coach-led program at no extra cost. Both were designed for all fitness levels. Last year's Tri-Umph races drew almost 1,500 people, with about 200 participants per location, according to Hawkins. She expects participation to grow significantly over the next few years, and this year's series will take place in 15 cities.

Along with promoting the Tri-Umph, the AARP is expanding its research about seniors' attitudes toward recreation and fitness.

"We're learning how to talk to them about the issue, and what they want," Hawkins says. "We want to know how to make it fun, which is so important to them, and what kinds of programs and activities the Planners and Tryers would participate in. Do they need incentives? Do they like to do things individually or in groups?"

A few preliminary findings Hawkins passed along: "We can't underestimate their abilities. They don't want to be preached to and don't want to be condescended to."

Marketing recreation and fitness programs to seniors differs from the younger population as well, Hawkins notes.

"They don't want to see models, and they don't want to see spandex," she says. "They want to see ordinary people who look like they're enjoying themselves. We found they'd rather see people in groups, with men and women together, rather than single-sex. They also want a strong message showing other people juggling everything in their lives and still finding time for physical activity."

Programs powered by seniors

Recreation professionals don't need the AARP's hefty research budget to figure out what seniors want, however. They can simply ask their seniors about programming, let them take the reins for planning, and see what they accomplish.

This has worked well for the Evergreen Seniors Centre in Guelph, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, where residents demonstrate the will to make things happen, the desire to learn, the urge to handle their own affairs, and the mindset to transcend traditional "senior" activities.

"You can't underestimate the senior population," says Kelly McAlpine, Evergreen administrator. "These are people with a lot of knowledge and experience, and they're comfortable setting their own path."

The Evergreen Seniors Centre, which opened 10 years ago, was pretty much created by its 3,000 members, McAlpine says. They raised $1.2 million to build the center themselves and play a large part in running it, handling virtually all operations. An army of almost 500 volunteers handles front-desk operations and program registration and runs the dining room and cash register, among other things.

Sun City Grand Granite Falls golf course.

Evergreen's programming reflects the "can-do" spirit of its seniors. McAlpine notes that while it offers traditional programming (she puts belly dancing into this category) some of the most popular offerings include wilderness hikes and dragon-boat races. For the uninitiated, this popular Toronto-area passion consists of racing small- to medium-sized boats decked out to look like dragons on area lakes, including Guelph Lake and Lake Ontario, where Evergreen seniors took part in the finals.

And Evergreen members dictate programming, frequently approaching the staff with new ideas.

"We're not dragging seniors into things," McAlpine says. "They're pulling us, and we're out of breath trying to keep up."

Evergreen also demonstrates another burgeoning area of senior interest: computer literacy. When the city purchased a software system to handle program registration for its recreation programs, it originally left Evergreen with the existing paper method, since the registration desk was such a popular volunteer staffing spot and social stop. But Evergreen's seniors decided they to take a crack at the system, deciding to create a hostess desk to retain the "chatting" spot. Aided by trainers from the software company, the center's seniors, many of whom had never used a computer, started with computer solitaire to familiarize themselves with the machines and worked their way up to mastering the system. This success bred computer confidence—the center now has its own Web site, created and maintained by senior volunteers.

Interest in computers has blossomed in the last few years, agrees John Waldron, director of public affairs for Phoenix-based Del Webb Corp., the nation's largest builder of active adult residential communities. At Del Webb communities across the country, including the Phoenix area, Huntley, Ill., and Virginia, computer rooms have grown from closet-size spaces to 2,500-square-foot telecom centers.

"Technology is huge for our clients," he says.

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.

Who are These Boomer Seniors Going to Be?

Leave it to the AARP to get the best handle on seniors and their recreational needs. From a recent study, the AARP has grouped seniors into four fitness types, according to Margaret Hawkins, AARP campaign manager, health.

The Do-Nothings are sedentary and not interested in getting any information about changing that lifestyle.

"You can put a lot of energy into that group and not get much of a return," Hawkins admits.

The Planners are trying to develop a plan to get active, but they lack information and don't know the range of options available. They may put activity on their lists, but it keeps moving down that list since they're not certain how to start.

The Tryers are attempting to become active but may not be doing enough. Many in this group have experienced a trigger: a health condition, stress or they've seen their peers declining. Their activity tends to come on a trial-and-error basis, Hawkins says.

The Habitual Exercisers don't need much help from anyone, as their name implies.

Does the huge demographic bulge of soon-to-be-seniors on the horizon mean that gyms and rec centers will be swarmed with mobs of gray?

The AARP also has worked to categorize aging Baby Boomers. In a major study published last year, "Baby Boomers Envision Their Retirement," the AARP broke Boomers into five categories. While they apply to overall attitudes toward retirement, they also reflect how these groups will view recreation.

The Self Reliants, the largest group at 30 percent, boasts the highest income and education level, are saving aggressively for retirement, and plan to work at least part time after they retire for the interest and enjoyment. Only 1 percent expect not to work at all.

Today's Traditionalists, 25 percent, have a stronger sense of confidence toward federal programs such as social security and envision a very traditional (hence their name) retirement.

The Anxious, 23 percent, live below the average Boomers' household income level, don't expect financial security when the retire and assume they will continue working because they must.

The Enthusiasts, 13 percent, eagerly await their retirement, plan not to work at all, and foresee devoting plenty of time and money to recreation.

The Strugglers, 9 percent, post the lowest income and are comprised of women over men by nearly 2 to 1. They've saved no money for retirement because they have none to save and look upon retirement with little optimism.

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.

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