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Senior centers seek to draw reluctant baby boomers

By Anne M. Amato
Connecticut Post / December 4, 2011
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BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—It's hard to believe that those long-haired hippies, those radicals of the 60s who said "never trust anyone over 30," who fought for women's and civil rights and who totally embraced the youth culture have, well, gotten older.

Now don't get crazy if you are among the estimated 76 million people born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964 -- during the baby boom -- and you have recently turned 60, or older.

It's OK -- really!

You can join AARP or you can get those Tuesday discounts at Wal-Mart, a reduced-price ticket at the movies, or a discounted cup of joe at McDonalds. Or, you can sign up for a membership at your local senior center.

No way, you say. Those places are for really, really old people. You'd never set foot in one.

There's no doubt that senior centers have an image problem, said Dianne Stone, a member of the Connecticut Association of Senior Center Personnel.

"If you haven't been to one lately, you think it's a glorified bingo hall," said Stone, who is also director of the Senior and Disabled Center in Newington.

But in reality, she said, that's far from the truth. "Many centers are changing to meet the needs of the generations we serve," she said. "It's a matter of figuring out what the boomers want."

By the end of this year, 2.5 million boomers will have turned 65 and 7,000 boomers will turn 65 each day for the next 19 years, according to information from the national AARP. The question is, what will they want to do with their time?

For Nancy Glynn, of Fairfield, who just turned 63, it was an exercise class that got her into the Fairfield Senior Center and she's been singing the center's praises ever since.

"I never gave senior centers a thought until last January when the frozen sidewalks prevented me and my friends from taking daily walks in the neighborhood," she said. Seeking out an alternative, she found her local senior center.

"Well, we were shocked to learn the difficulty in keeping up with some of the older people who have been coming to exercise for 10 years," said Glynn, a travel agent consultant and Realtor. The morning exercise program is always packed. The center also offers classes in computer technology and talks on various subjects by local college professors, some of which Glynn has attended, including one on Islam.

"It was certainly a surprise to find this center and I appreciate all it offers," she said.

While Glynn has no qualms about going to the center, she knows that others, her husband included, would have an aversion to them.

However, she said she believes those boomers will eventually seek out senior centers for socialization and education. "I really can foresee a change from a coffee klatch to latte sipping," she said.

Running is Allen Downs' hobby, racing is his indulgence, and he enjoys participating in the annual Commodore Hull Thanksgiving Day 5K race in Shelton and Derby. Not ready for the sedentary life, Downs, 58, said he feels it will be quite some time before he sets foot in a senior center, if ever.

He said that it's not what a senior center needs to change in order to have him join.

"It's more how I have to change -- what I'm doing differently -- to want to join them," said Downs, a Shelton resident who works in Stamford in the technology industry.

John Fertig, 66, of Oxford, would agree. Even though Fertig, an attorney, and his wife have looked into their Social Security options, he said he's not thinking about retiring any time soon, or spending time at a senior center.

Fertig said he keeps active by going to the gym each day, bike riding and playing hockey once a week.

"I'm not ready right now to go to a senior center to play pool with my cronies," he said. "Maybe I might do it someday. You never know."

For Mary Ann Vlahac, an adjunct professor in the business department at Housatonic Community College, just the word "senior" is a turn-off.

"The name has to be revamped," she said. "Maybe they should call them `living centers' instead."

She said even though they have much to offer, they need to evolve to attract boomers.

"They will fail if they remain a bingo lounge," she said. "They have to offer something for the mind, spirit and the body."

Vlahac, of Stratford, who describes herself "just on the other side of 55 years old," said boomers will want to know if the centers are offering any type of adventure. She said she's remained adventurous since she snuck off to Woodstock, "the original one," as a young teenager.

"We're not ready yet for a rocking chair," she said, "unless it's attached to something that makes it able to fly."

Young blood, I can't get you out of my mind

Jon Bloch, chairman of the sociology department at Southern Connecticut State University, said he doesn't foresee many baby boomers eagerly signing up for senior center memberships -- not at first, anyway.

"They have such a strong youth culture that I think a lot of them are going to have trouble adjusting to the fact that they are getting older," he said. "There's going to be a lot of resistance there. I can see them kicking and screaming before admitting they are getting old."

But, he said, reality will set in.

"Age does catch up with you eventually, and it will to the people who are now in their 60s," he said.

At a certain point, he said, senior centers might become a vital link for them. Some boomers who initially balk at the idea of going to a senior center might eventually find a need for the services they offer.

"They just won't brag about going to one," he said. "They just don't like the idea of being dependent on someone or something."

Patricia Kahlbaugh, a psychology professor at Southern Connecticut State University, said that, for some baby boomers, signing up for a senior center membership could signal a loss of relevance to them. "There are so many loses already with aging -- function, cognitive ability," she said. Boomers might not want to embrace one more. "They want people to know they are still in the game."

Plus, she said, boomers had so much fun being young, they are in "no rush" to trade that in. "You see it a lot with boomers keeping involved with their kids to stay young with them," said Kahlbaugh, who was born at the end of the baby boom. "That's different than our parents, who were more comfortable with age segregation."

The bottom line is that the centers need to transform to become a place boomers will find fun. "They will have to modify programs for the baby boomers' interests, if they are to survive," Kahlbaugh said.

That thought hasn't escaped senior center directors, including Diane Puterski, director at the Baldwin Center in Stratford. It's been about five years since they first began wondering how to reach out to boomers, who make up more than 1 million of the state's 3.57 million residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census figures.

She said staffers have attended national conferences on the topic and have gathered focus groups. However, so far, there haven't been any major changes to lure boomers in.

"We do offer Golden Zumba and that's been a hit," she said. Zumba has been attracting as many as 60 participants.

They also have record hops and haven't ruled out bringing in disco for the younger senior crowd.

Puterski said the majority of the center's nearly 5,000 members -- about 80 percent -- are in their 70s, 80s and older.

She's not concerned that boomers will completely abandon the senior center concept. "I'm sure we're not necessarily a priority to some, like we were for their parents' generation," she said. "But we do serve a purpose. We offer lots of courses and have new classes, like those for meditation at a reasonable price."

"We're not concerned about our membership because we serve a purpose," Puterski said. "There will always be new people here."

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