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Home / Focus / Senior Living May 2008 / Valley senior centers work to keep up with aging boomers

Valley senior centers work to keep up with aging boomers

Sweat Equity • Many seniors across the country aren’t looking to slow down, and the nation’s senior centers are adapting.

Decades ago, when the first Sun City senior centers were constructed in the West Valley, the idea was to give retirees a place to go for bowling, golf, camaraderie and a sense of community in their last, best years.
Today, while the centers have greatly expanded, the concept remains the same. But the activities drawing in retired Baby Boomers in many cases are different from those featured during the ‘60s and ‘70s. In a word, these are not your fathers’ senior centers. And they can’t be, if they want to survive and continue to thrive in the 21st century.
“If (senior centers) don’t innovate, they will die,” says John A. Kront, director of the Gerontology Institute at Ithaca College, as reported recently in the New York Times.
Today, seniors are nearly as likely to be stretching across yoga mats as marching down bowling lanes. And while many take advantage of numerous options for keeping fit in the seven centers in the Sun City region and in centers across the Phoenix area, their efforts are more focused than in the past.
“Seniors have unique conditions that need to be considered,” says Colleen Daily, owner of Daily Fitness, a firm that contracts with Sun City to bring a strategic touch to working out. “You can’t just throw them on the machines,” she says of helping retirees train. “It takes a soft touch, knowledge and expertise.”
That expertise is provided by combining fitness activities with chronic-disease management and other aspects of healthy aging.
The centers in Sun City, meanwhile, are continually being renovated in order to meet the needs of seniors who may be retired, but aren’t necessarily interested in slowing to a leisurely pace.
“We’re trying to keep as updated as possible,” says Lindsay Frost, communications coordinator for the Recreation Centers of Sun City. “And we’re continually offering things the members are asking for.”
That push to make senior centers more palatable to an ever-diverse group of retirees touches a national chord.
In New York City, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is promoting a plan to make the city more user-friendly to the elderly, including modernizing the nation’s largest system of senior centers, reports the New York Times.
Modernizing Arizona’s
‘senior mecca’
Sun City is considered a national model of a retiree community in which homeowners have regular access to a variety of centers. There, the move to modernize includes adapting fitness offerings as well as a slew of other activities, from computer clubs and massage therapy to pilates and pickleball (like tennis, on a smaller court).
Of course, the old standbys are present. You can always catch a good game of lawn bowling in Sun City. But it’s also just as easy to spot retirees — particularly of the Boomer generation — hitting the weights or newfangled workout machines.
Alice and Glenn Desens are two self-described “gym slackers” who recently signed up for a new program offered through a partnership between the Sun City centers and Daily Fitness. The program was designed to provide seniors with fitness goals and the training expertise to meet them.
“We were basically lazy people,” said Mrs. Desens, who lives with her husband in Sun City for most of the year (the two travel to Minnesota in the summer). “(This program) forces us to do things. We’re in the rhythm of it now, and we enjoy it thoroughly.”
The couple reports three times a week to Bell Recreation Center, located near 99th Avenue and Bell Road. They work with a Daily Fitness trainer, and while neither has had much previous weight-training experience, they were guided by mentors specially versed in the needs of seniors.
Alice Desens, 69, is a diabetic, and her husband Glenn, 71, has rheumatoid arthritis. But both feel worlds better than before. “It’s wonderful,” she says. “We’ve gained muscle strength and are much more satisfied with life.”
“What we’re finding in Sun City is that updating the fitness centers and bringing in better equipment is a priority for (today’s retirees),” says Jane Fortier, business manager for Daily Fitness. To this generation of seniors, she says, fitness is not an option. “It’s a necessity.”
Across the Phoenix metropolitan area, in fact, retirees are asking that community centers update their offerings.
Doris J. Marshall, deputy human services director for the Senior Services Division of the city of Phoenix, says the 17 community centers within the city are strategically positioned to serve a wide swathe of the population.
Seventeen Phoenix
centers serve 15,000
That means getting creative for the estimated 15,000 seniors who use the Phoenix centers each month.
“It’s a challenge,” Marshall says of meeting the needs of such a diverse group. “The oldest person we serve is 101. Clearly, that person’s needs are different from the Boomer population.”
To address this, senior centers in Phoenix are offering healthier foods and salads, bringing in new workout equipment and considering the café model now being popularized in places like New York.
The idea is to turn the faded concept of a bingo hall into something more like a Starbucks or a World Gym.
“We’re trying a lot of different things now,” says Marshall. “Our most important goal is to reach as many older adults as we can.” That means establishing new centers along bus lines and near major shopping areas, as well as meeting specific requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Phoenix centers also are extending hours and reaching out to the business community to establish program partnerships. “We’re looking at underserved areas and conducting more community outreach,” says Marshall. “We want to let people know who we are.”
In Sun City, a community long known as a senior mecca, addressing the new needs of retiring Boomers has become a niche business for Daily Fitness, a company that the owner says was among the first in the Valley to specialize in strategic senior training.
“The population here is growing, and the need is great for this type of service,” Daily says. The firm’s 10 trainers are nationally certified in senior fitness, and spend time crafting regimens that take into account flexibility, metabolism and physical therapy needs, among other elements.
It only makes sense, Daily says, as the better-conditioned Boomer population continues to seek modern facilities. “It’s becoming more trendy,” she says of the market catering to senior fitness. “It’s the up-and-coming thing.”

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