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."

And about that dining program: The two Henderson facilities, as well as The Summit in Grand Prairie, offer meals for their patrons, which makes it easier for them to come and stay a while, finding opportunities to socialize, meet friends and break up the monotony of their days. "Social isolation has twice the health risk as obesity," reported Milner. "And think about all the [resources] we're tossing at obesity. But what are we doing for isolation? If you can make your center a social hub, it's a good thing."

Other desires this portion of the population may have?

  • Excellent service: When designing and completing The Summit, Grand Prairie went out of its way to make the center high-end and luxurious, noted Long. "It has amenities like a country club," she said. And the customer service to match.
  • Staff at Henderson's older adult facilities offers "high-touch customer service," said Becker. "They know patrons by name, know who's going away for the holidays, who is feeling under the weather, who has experienced a loss, who just needs a kind word. Patrons enjoy that feeling of belonging when they're greeted by name every day."

    Customer service representatives at older adult centers should be educated about the health issues of the population they're serving, said Milner. And if they are, they tend not to turn their backs on older people, but embrace them. "You can have all the best facilities, but if people are ageist or are saying, 'Yes, dearie, let me help,' right off the bat you're going to turn off the market."

  • Volunteer opportunities: Becker said the staff in Henderson rapidly noted a desire to give back among their 50-plus patrons, so they now have a "very robust" active adult volunteer program, which recently logged more than 25,000 service hours in one year. Their Heritage Park Senior Facility has an award-winning volunteer docent greeter program, which welcomes first-time visitors personally and provides them with a tour and registration assistance. Other volunteers serve meals, craft items for foster children and military members deployed overseas, serve as tutors, and help out as library aides, Becker reported.

How Can Community and Recreation Centers Meet These Needs?

As the over-50 population continues to grow, it will likely make more and more sense to create facilities specifically for them and catering to their needs. After all, The Summit's Long noted, there's quite a diversity of interests and abilities even within this group. Someone who is 55 and not yet retired has much different needs from someone 85, not working, and living alone. But at The Summit, "all the ages get along well," she reported. "Fifty to 100-plus, they help each other out." And, she said, a dedicated facility "makes seniors feel special."

But don't despair if a freestanding active adult center is not financially feasible for your community at this moment. ICAA's Milner believes it's completely possible to engage older adults in an all-ages community center. He's seen both adults-only hours and separate programming for older adults work in various places, but "I'm a big believer in community," he said. "That's why recreation centers and community centers really have a leg up on the commercial fitness club industry. In many instances they're already more inclusive. The goal is to have policies that support interaction as opposed to exclusion."

He offered the following tips to get everything from your programming to the layout of your facility in its most widely welcoming form.

Focus on interests, not age: Rather than billing a class as open to ages 50+, focus on the needs it addresses. "A marathon runner at 80 has the same interests as one at 20, 30 or 50," Milner said. "They want to train as best they can." An obese 20-year-old who has a hard time on the stairs may need to join a "Sit and Be Fit" class rather than traditional aerobics, he added. Heart health can also be an area of interest for people of all ages. And if you're working to attract a broad spectrum of guests, be sure you offer classes at a variety of times so those still working or who prefer not to be out in the evenings have an opportunity to participate.

At the same time, make sure at least some of your programs "apply to the marketplace," said Milner, who reported seeing younger trainers at his gym trying to talk older clients into high-intensity classes and other "really weird stuff." Instead, he recommends including classes that work on balance, fall prevention, and the strength needed to get up and down off the ground—ways to keep aging adults mobile and able to do the things they want to do. For help boosting this aspect of your programming, consider bringing in an established program like SilverSneakers.

But whatever you offer, "try not to label things 'Hey! This is because you're old!'" Milner said. Avoiding this may not just open these offerings to all ages, it may also help you attract older adults. "No one wants to be called old," he said. "My grandmother at 102 talks about other old people. She doesn't mean herself."

Drawing in the "active adult" population—those 50 to 65-ish—has been a particular struggle in Henderson, noted Becker. "Many of them still work and don't really see themselves as 'seniors,'" she said, so getting them to visit a building with the word 'senior' in its name—or perhaps even select a program that seems geared toward seniors—can be difficult. "I would definitely encourage any community building a new age-restricted facility to seriously consider not using the word 'senior' in its name unless it is a true senior center," she said.

Design with ability in mind: Consider the layout of your facility and make sure those who are the least mobile or least fit don't have to travel the farthest or up the most stairs to get to the parts of the building they're interested in. "I always put the heaviest weights at the back of the gym," Milner said with a laugh. "Keep the lighter ones up front where they're easier to find."

And speaking of weights, if you're purchasing new equipment, make sure what you choose will be useable by everyone you want to bring into your facility. By age 80, nearly half of people can't lift 10 pounds, he noted. So if your new strength equipment has 10 pounds as the lowest setting, you've just spent a lot of money on something a chunk of your audience can't use.

Just do some careful thinking, Milner suggested. Are your signs and flyers printed with an easily readable font? Is your music too loud for friendly conversation? Are your treadmills so tall that some may need adapters to get on them safely? Also, include those using the facility in your assessment process. If there's a particular population you're trying to reach out to (such as active adults or seniors), have them "be your eyes and ears," he said. Give them a clipboard and have them walk through your center and take some notes about what they like and don't like—and you could have them do this with your competition as well.

Consider how you market: Casting a broad, inclusive net is going to be your best bet here as well. Those in the 50-to-65 age bracket are likely computer proficient and able to access marketing that comes via social media or the internet. The Summit advertises on Facebook specifically for this group. But if you focus all your advertising dollars on your website, you may miss older adults who prefer more concrete means of acquiring information. Summit staffers also make frequent appearances at community health fairs and other in-person opportunities to "get the word out" about their facility, said Long.

Henderson, Nev., promotes programming for older adults in their citywide catalogs, and they also make sure offerings are announced in their facilities themselves via signage and flyers. And while many patrons register for classes online with the catalog as a guide, at the Downtown Senior Center and Heritage Park Senior Facility, the bulk of registration happens in person at the front desk.

Ultimately, we've reached the point where openness and attention to the older adult population will benefit both facility owners and facility users. The more people you can involve in a healthier lifestyle, the more successful your center will be. And not only is the over-50 population growing, noted Milner, it's already the segment with the most disposable income. "Numbers, dollars, it's all in your favor except for your mindset," he said. "That's what's keeping you from being successful with this group."

But if you can make the leap, there's likely a hefty reward. The Summit signed up 5,000 members in its first year and is going strong, reported Rick Herold, Parks and Recreation Director for Grand Prairie. "This is a group that refuses to age, but continues to reinvent themselves," he said. "We're transcending the active aging market."

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