Lose The Senior Center Stereotype

By Carrie Hadley

When I finished architecture school, my mother was elated, not because I received a degree but because she was overjoyed since she now knew someone who was able to design her fantasy senior center, which includes a pool, fitness area, spa, gardens, kitchens, and places to gather for laughing with friends.

My mother (a baby boomer) shares this vision with many of her peers. This generation desires something more, something better, from their senior centers. The boomers are no longer content to sit still in a room and play cards. They want to move, learn, socialize, and interact with the community. They want to stay active.

As facility programmers and operators, you may be asking yourself, “How can I attract the ever-growing aging population to our facility?” The first and simplest step is to market an “active” center. Rebrand the facility from a “senior center” to an “active-adult center.” Boomers don’t want to be associated with traditional perceptions of aging. To this generation, the word “senior” is synonymous with “passive” and “boring,” which is the exact opposite of their desires for activity and excitement. Once you get clients in the door, the programs offered need to satisfy a holistic mind, body, and soul approach to wellness.

Fitness Rooms, Gymnasiums, And Pools
Fitness rooms—Access to equipment that maintains fitness and mobility has become an essential need for recreational facilities trying to attract boomers. Operators should provide equipment that focuses on maintaining strength, balance, and reducing the risks of injury. Keep in mind that users with limited mobility or those who need assistance while exercising may not feel comfortable working out in a traditional open-gym setting. In addition to the open fitness room, consider providing a smaller personal-fitness room that can accommodate two or three people. Further programming in these small rooms can include personal training, massage, on-demand fitness classes, and physical therapy. Consider partnering with a physical-therapy provider to introduce new clientele to the facility. Offering massage/spa services also can be a major draw.

Gymnasiums—The passion for competitive sports still exists in boomers, but at their stage in life, full-size courts are no longer desirable. Offer smaller, half-sized courts that are more forgiving on knee and hip joints. Keep the gymnasium space as flexible as possible to accommodate a variety of activities. Have basketball hoops, soccer goals, volleyball systems, and golf/batting practice nets that can be lowered from the ceiling for flexibility and easy setup. Another idea is to partner with other active-adult centers in the area to create competitive sports leagues. By competing with nearby municipalities, participants are exposed to new social opportunities. After the games, everyone can go to a social space in the center for snacks and further interaction.

Pools—Warm-water swimming facilities are also in high demand to minimize the impact on joints while exercising. Water aerobics, aqua Zumba, and The Arthritis Foundation fitness classes have become extremely popular. Provide additional fitness challenges by adding water currents to challenge users by walking with and against the current. Benches built into pool walls with adjustable hydro-therapy jets can also be an attractive addition. If possible, provide space for a physical-therapy room that provides direct access to the pool. This allows for a therapist to transfer clients to and from the water effortlessly and with privacy.

Exercises For The Mind
Albert Einstein inspired us to never give up the quest for knowledge when he said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” The active-adult center needs to provide spaces for teaching classes, mentoring, meetings, and collaboration. Special considerations for rooms that host this type of activity are induction-hearing systems, Bluetooth-enabled television/media systems, and sound-absorbing acoustical treatments to prevent echo/reverberation. 

Offer classes in topics like health, technology, nutrition, Social Security, finances, and insurance. Don’t limit the educational topics to the expertise of staff members. Consider hosting lectures from the nation’s top academics and professionals. Many online resources provide free lectures from Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, and the list goes on. After the lecture, engage the participants with a facilitated discussion. 

Boomers are embracing technology and are equipped with e-readers, tablets, and smartphones. Instead of having rooms full of desktop computers, consider providing laptops for class and member use. Laptops will allow for flexibility in seating arrangements when teaching large and small classes. In addition, laptops allow members to check out a device to take to social spaces in the center to share emails, photos, and social media with friends. At some small tables, provide a large monitor so users can share with larger groups. Ensure that these monitors/TVs are equipped with devices like Apple TV so users can share from their personal devices. In addition, a mobile-device bar with plenty of charging outlets can act as a gathering place for members.

Technology-education needs can also be an opportunity to interact with younger generations. Try a “Teach me and I’ll teach you” mentoring program. Have a member of a younger generation teach a boomer how to use technology, and in return the youth member can receive career mentoring. 

Virtual Senior Centers
Don’t limit the class size to participants inside the room; consider hosting classes and discussions online. You will be able to reach those unable to attend due to lack of transportation, child care, or mobility. Virtual senior centers allow for homebound seniors to interact and engage with peers.

Seniors in New York City tested a pilot program provided through a public-private partnership. Through video cameras, microphones, and monitors at the senior center, homebound seniors not only were able to watch the classes, but were able to participate, ask questions, and interact with others. One participant, Adelle, 103, with limited mobility, enjoys watching through her computer the tai chi and ballroom dancing classes at the center. “I can see them dancing, and I feel like dancing myself,” she says. “It’s wonderful.” Another participant, Milton, 89, shares his experience with the program: “It saved my life. Before this project, I was bored to death. I was just waiting for my time to finish. Now, all of a sudden, I’m wide awake. I’m alive again. [The program] makes me feel less lonely. I can communicate easily with people. It also gives me a million things to talk about and things to get interested in.” http://www.csa.us/freeresources/socialinterestlibrary/seniorcenters/

Social Interaction
Strengthening the soul through social interaction is important. Multifunctional social spaces are necessary to promote formal and informal interaction. Rooms with tables for impromptu card games, meetings, or meals should be made available. Weekly lunches continue to be popular with this population. Try adding some extra social interaction by having members present a short 15-minute slide show about a recent vacation, or have new members host a get-to-know-me presentation.

And don’t forget about the potential for outdoor programs. Shared gardens with horticultural classes can offer unique experiences for active-adult centers. Classes can be hosted on a variety of topics, from composting and harvesting to organic fertilizers. If the facility serves weekly meals, many can be prepared with food from the garden. Not only will this help offset the cost of food for the meals, but it will produce feelings of pride and accomplishment for the ones who tended the garden.

Recent polls have revealed that one in 10 childrene lives with a grandparent and four in 10 are primarily raised by a grandparent. (Source: Pew research center) http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/09/09/since-the-start-of-the-great-recession-more-children-raised-by-grandparents/. Sometimes boomers need assistance with child care in order to use the facilities.  Offering a child-care area while members engage in programs is a key attraction. Major retailers like IKEA and Giant Eagle have addressed child-care needs by providing this service while customers are shopping. 

Get A Game Plan
There are several issues that operators must address in offering successful active-adult programs. One of the most important is the facility itself. Take a look at the community’s needs and determine if there is a benefit in integrating separate stand-alone centers into one.

It is important that multi-generational facilities provide active adults-only spaces. Dedicated rooms with games, pool tables, card tables, TVs, and computers, where active adults can escape the hustle and bustle of the facility, are necessary. There may be space for a small residential kitchen to host cooking classes, or there might be an informal gathering environment similar to a home kitchen. Be sure to include a small workout room with a few pieces of equipment where seniors can evade the hectic fitness area at 5 p.m.

If facilities are combined, staff training must be considered. Young staff members will need to fine-tune customer service and conflict-resolution skills. If this hasn’t been done already, train all staff with first-aid/AED certifications to assist in medical emergencies. A helpful, knowledgeable, and considerate staff will have a major influence on the guests’ perceptions of the facility.

Financial Considerations
One challenge in combining all programs into one facility is the fight for program space. Typically, the most profitable programs have priority when it comes to scheduling rooms. As a facility manager, it will be important for you to implement a shared approach to the spaces rather than scheduling for revenue-generation alone.

Funding active-adult programs can be a challenge. High program costs often deter boomers on a fixed income from participating. Explore alternative ways to fund programs. Perhaps an active adult can volunteer at the child-care area in place of a paid staff member. In return, the volunteer will earn credits to use on upcoming active-adult programs.

At the end of the day, baby boomers’ efforts to pave the way for generations to follow are to be applauded. Boomers have tirelessly asked community leaders to see that senior centers evolve. I encourage facility operators, recreation programmers, and designers to look to boomers for ideas on how to teach and inspire younger generations to be active and strong, and to defy ideas of conventional aging. 

Carrie Hadley, LEED GA, is an Associate and Designer for Barker, Rinker, Seacat Architecture. A former recreation center manager, certified pool operator, personal trainer, and spinning instructor with a myriad of Red Cross certifications, she left her life inside the rec center to step out and design them instead. Reach her at carriehadley@brsarch.com.