Senior centers nationwide revamping programs to serve millions of new baby boomer guests
By STEPHANIE REITZ , Associated Press
ENFIELD, Conn. – Susan Lather envisions a day when paninis and mock cocktails will take their place next to fruit cups and club sandwiches on the lunch menu at the Enfield Senior Center.
Changing food preferences are among many adjustments that senior center directors nationwide, including Lather, expect to make in the next decade as they balance the wishes of their elderly stalwarts with those of baby boomer newcomers.
Some even have taken “senior” out of their names, christening the facilities “community centers.” It’s a nod to boomers who acknowledge they are aging but bristle at the term “senior” and the stereotypes of fragility or dependency.
The first of the 78 million boomers started receiving Social Security retirement benefits this year, and the Census Bureau estimates almost 8,000 of them are turning 60 every day.
“The boomers are going to have the same impact in senior centers that they had as babies when they were born, in schools, in the work force and in society in general,” said Jay Morgan, manager of the Office on Aging in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“You really can’t underestimate that impact,” he said.
Morgan moderates a National Council on Aging online discussion group for senior center directors and said they voice common concerns about serving boomers.
Some examples: offering programs to fit the schedules of boomers working well into their 60s and making them diverse and intellectually appealing, and ensuring that longtime older visitors aren’t alienated by the changes.
None expect it to be easy. Even those who’ve planned in advance say baby boomers will be unlike any generation that has ever passed through senior centers.
In Enfield, traditional activities “” bingo and cribbage, blood pressure clinics, bereavement support “” are now joined by high-energy Zumba exercise classes, Nintendo Wii video game tournaments and investment clubs.
Lather said she may even launch a motorcycle club for the many “young” seniors arriving at the northern Connecticut center on two wheels.
“I’d say we’re a pretty hip senior center,” she said. “We like it when people say ‘I feel young here.'”
Center directors say some adjustments have been easy, such as showing contemporary movies in place of black-and-white and mid-20th century classics.
Other changes take more planning, such as coordinating exotic vacation trips or scheduling appointments with Social Security representatives to help “young” seniors make the transition from working life to retirement.
More than two-thirds of directors polled in a 2005 survey by the National Institute for Senior Centers said they thought boomers and those just a few years older could not relate to being called “seniors.”
Muriel Roy, 64, counts herself among them. Roy, an Enfield center regular for about seven years, said she first thought the centers “were just for old people “” and that’s not me.”
“They were more like a convalescent home, that was the image I had,” said Roy, who was drawn to Enfield’s center by her interest in one of its crafts programs.
Fellow crafts enthusiasts Cathy Gernand, 64, and Pat Beblo, 67, said they, too, thought senior centers offered nothing that would appeal to them until they were well into their 70s or 80s.
“The older you get, the further away ‘old age’ really gets,” Beblo said, laughing.
In West Virginia, where 15 percent of the state population is 65 and older, some centers are offering seminars to younger seniors on caring for their aging parents, with whom many of the boomers will be sharing the centers.
In West Virginia’s Monongalia County, the Senior Monongalians center also is expanding its gym, offers an Internet cafe and expanded its hours to attract younger seniors after work.
“This is something we’re definitely addressing, because it’s going to last for decades,” said Vicki Long, the Senior Monongalians center’s marketing coordinator.
Not everyone at the senior centers is excited about the changes.
Robert Roswall, executive director of the Cabell County, W.Va., Community Services Organization, said older seniors at its eight centers in and around Huntington tend to ignore the newer activities in favor of bingo, daily meals and other sedate offerings.
“They’re interested in their group,” he said. “It’s like a clique. You kind of have two groups in there right now.”
Morgan, the manager of the aging office in St. Petersburg, says there actually are three: the “G.I.” generation of the World War II era; the “silent generation” shaped largely by the 50s and early 60s, and the boomers.
“Each generation has its unique characteristics,” Morgan said. “We have to recognize the value of the G.I. generation and silent generation and not just kick them out the door. But at the same time, we have to recognize the impact of the baby boomer generation and make changes to accommodate them.”
He predicts that will mean more grab-and-go meals, sports leagues, day trips and the most up-to-date recreation and social offerings.
As for changing the names from “senior” to “community” centers, Morgan is dubious.
“I’m kind of from the old school of calling it what it is,” said Morgan.
He says his fellow baby boomers need to “get over themselves.”
“When they’re 70, the word ‘senior’ won’t seem so bad,” he said.