Spice It Up For Seniors

By Brooke Peterson

The senior population of every village, town, and city in America is increasing daily. With baby boomers retiring, and nearly a quarter of the American population being at least 55 years old, this number is only expected to rise over the next 40 years.


The city of Chandler, Ariz., has more than 41,000 seniors, or 17.4 percent of all residents. In the 27 years since the ChandlerSeniorCenter and Recreation Division opened its doors, the staff has learned a few things.

Know The Audience, Meet The Needs
The senior center serves between 90 and 125 active adults every day, offering 24 weekly activities, including quilting, cards, exercise, bingo, and crafts. In addition, basic medical screenings, day excursions, and monthly trips to area casinos also are offered. At times it is challenging to know what programs residents will respond to and embrace. The center is fortunate to work with the Chandler Christian Community Center, which sponsors a Senior Site Council the third Monday of each month. The 21-member council, comprised of senior-center regulars, has the opportunity to voice their opinions on what happens at the center. Senior-center staff members attend these meetings to listen to the needs of their patrons. As a result, the center has been able to transform the seniors’ ideas into programs, activities, and special events.

Chandler has a vibrant senior population year-round, but between the months of November and April it is even busier. Several hundred “snowbirds” make the city their winter home.

Here is some advice for other senior centers: set aside time each week for an open dialogue to gain insights into what seniors are looking for, and take their concerns seriously.  At the end of a class, ask them to complete a customer-satisfaction survey.

Partner With Other Communities And Facilities
For smaller towns and even large cities, partnerships can be a great way to help seniors get to know other active adults in the area. For 20 years, Chandler’s senior center has partnered with the town of Gilbert’s senior center to host an annual ”Spice of Life” variety show in the spring. This has become a sellout show that attendees look forward to every year. The show is 2 hours long, with one 15-minute intermission, and features nearly 30 acts.

When the variety show first began, staff members from both municipalities ran the entire production. Anyone older than 55 and interested in sharing their talents could participate, and only one matinee performance was held. The program has since evolved to meet the growing number of participants and attendees.

In 1996, city officials contracted a director to facilitate all aspects of the performance(s). This has made a tremendous difference, allowing performers to feel like they’re part of a professional show, while freeing up full-time staff members to work on other projects.

In 2001, the ”Spice of Life” director implemented an audition process with a panel of six judges to vet performers. Once selections were made, each act must have committed to three rehearsals to ensure the quality of the show.

Due to popular demand this year, additional performances have been added. There are now two matinee and two evening performances held at the Chandler Center for the Arts, which seats 350.

Host A Successful Variety Show

  • Select a conveniently located theatre or venue. Hold all auditions, rehearsals, and performances at the same location.
  • Keep prices affordable. Set ticket prices at $5 to accommodate seniors on fixed incomes. Use the money to support additional senior programming.
  • Hire a director and assistant director to assist in auditions and the selection of cast members.
  • Host a variety show, not a talent show. This will keep the event a place to showcase the performers’ interests, rather than hold a competition.

Host Special Events
Every spring for the last 23 years, the center has hosted the Senior Expo, which provides a one-stop shop for information on adult assisted-living facilities, senior discounts at area businesses, and free health screenings. The event is sponsored by the Mayor's Committee for the Aging and the city of Chandler   Recreation Division. The senior-center staff and the mayor's committee members plan, organize, and coordinate the expo events.

Initially, attendance was a challenge, but once paid advertising began, attendance has grown each year to almost 1,200 guests. In fact, the event is so popular that the expo has almost outgrown the 6,000-square-foot space. The senior center is not large enough to house the event, so the event is partnered with the community center next door, placing the expo in a convenient location for regular guests of the senior center.

Host A Senior Expo
Advertising is the biggest expense for an expo.

  • Reach out to publications early to negotiate pricing and a potential partnership.
  • Create banners, fliers, postcards, or whatever the budget allows.
  • Make promotional information available at all recreation facilities, as each facility serves a different sector of the population.
  • Reach out to large health-care providers in the area to discuss sponsorship. They will have an opportunity to present their ideas to a target audience while helping support a great community organization.

To encourage greater vendor participation:

Keep vendor-related expenses to a minimum. Expo vendors must provide a senior-related product, service, or leisure opportunity in order to participate. To encourage attendance from the community, require all vendors to bring a raffle gift.

Enlist the help of as many volunteers as possible. Hosting an event like this is not a one-person job, for it requires a team. Call upon volunteers to help with set-up the day before, and vendor parking and distribution of raffle tickets to attendees on the day of the event.

Remember that recreation is an essential element of life. When programming for residents, whatever their age, know the audience and the members’ needs and interests. Consider partnering with other communities and facilities in the area to maximize exposure, and don’t be afraid to play host to special events once needs and interests have been established.

Brooke Peterson is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator for the City of Chandler, Arizona. Reach her at Brooke.Peterson@chandleraz.gov .