Over 50 — not over the hill

Forget bingo; 'young seniors' enjoy varied, physical activities as community centers strive to meet increasingly diverse demands




Don’t say the B-word around CarolLee Cotter.

For the 65-year-old Vancouver resident, the whole concept of it is just way too lame.

“Bingo?” Cotter asked, looking somewhat aghast. “I’ll be ready for bingo in another 15-20 years, maybe. That’s more for my mother’s generation.”

Around Clark County and across the country, Cotter and others in the — dare we say it — “young senior” set, are rebelling against their parents’ conventions once again.

This time, though, the baby boom is not fighting against an outdated or unfair system of social norms, but against the staid old community activities popular with prior generations.

Things such as bingo, pinochle and hearts — they’re just so 2004.

Options, options

What baby boomers want instead are diverse options, physical exercise and new learning experiences. And that’s forcing community and senior centers nationwide to change the way they function, said Sue Hilberg, chairwoman of the Washington State Association of Senior Centers.

“All of us, as far as senior centers, we’re all trying to scramble to figure out what the up-and-coming senior wants from us,” said the 50-year-old, who qualifies as a senior herself, at least by AARP standards. “Bingo, cards, even nutritional programs are dying off. Instead we see a lot more active seniors. They want all kinds of activities. Everyone is just living so much longer.”

Besides living longer, baby boomers are also working longer. A lot of them want to participate in community activities, but also plan to work into their 70s.

That means community centers that want to accommodate them have to switch to more unconventional hours, rather than the standard 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. of the past, said Lisa Deane, enrichment program coordinator at Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation.

“A lot of the boomers are still working full time, and before we were working more with retired people,” Deane said. “Now we’re trying to schedule more things during evenings or weekends for them. It’s a whole new segment of the community, and it’s growing.”

Get physical

Probably the most popular of the new range of activities is organized hiking.

Hiking trips are so in demand at the Luepke Senior Center at 1009 E. McLoughlin Blvd. that parks and recreation, which operates it, has to keep adding more options, Deane said.

“All the hikes are near full every single week,” Deane said. “We’ve also started offering ‘Get Out There’ hikes on Saturdays to accommodate people who are still in the work force.”

The center offers easy, moderate and difficult hikes and has a walking program at parks to help seniors — or, ahem, those age “50 and better” — work up from beginner to expert hikers, she said.

“The 50-plus group also likes recreational activities like drop-in volleyball and basketball,” Deane said. “But for them it’s not as intense. It’s more about exercise and enjoying yourself.”

Demand is also growing for outdoor activities such as canoeing, kayaking and even wind surfing amongst the demographic, said Patty Krebs, a recreation specialist at parks and recreation’s Firstenburg Community Center.

“If they’re still physically able to do it, they want to do it — they’d probably even fill up a snowboarding class fairly fast,” said Krebs, 43. “A lot of seniors say ‘Hey, it’s my fountain of youth to stay active.’ Maybe they’ll teach the rest of us those habits eventually.”

Bingo survives

All this is not to say that the dreaded B-word is dead. The 70 and older crowd tend to still like bingo, card games and other more sedentary activities, Krebs said.

The generational shift between those who want physical activities and those who prefer card games and bingo seems to dovetail with the cultural shift in the 1950s and ’60s when women started to more commonly enter the workplace, she said.

“Women who didn’t have to work, they tend to have led slower, more sedentary lives, and they like the social activity of card games,” Krebs said. “The women who worked and are retiring, they seem to want to get outside more, to be more physical.”

The one type of activity that both groups seem to like, however, is dancing.

“Dance has always been popular,” Deane said. “But for older seniors of the World War II generation the type is generally ballroom dancing, big band. They’re amazing dancers, actually. But the boomers are looking for more variety. I think the popularity of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ has something to do with that. We get a lot of baby boomer-aged adults signing up for things like belly dancing, line dancing, East Coast and West Coast swing.”

Beyond the physical

Physical activity isn’t all that the baby boom crowd wants to see as they continue to gray. They also want to learn about new technology — especially how to use it to keep in touch with the grandkids, Krebs said.

“There’s a group of boomers that never got into computers, and now some of them are starting to take that on,” Krebs said. “They want to learn how to text or use Facebook with their grandchildren.”

Boomers who learn about technology, or those who have long known how to use it, also make great teachers for their parents’ generation.

“I have one person who teaches cellphone simplicity — she’s in her 60s and she teaches the older folks,” Krebs said. “I think older teachers are better for that, because they’re more patient with the prior generation. Kids have a hard time teaching about technology because they’re so used to it.”

Boomers also want to learn about everything and anything they see around them, Deane said.

“Some of our most popular 50 and better trips have been to things like a glass museum, an auto museum and festivals — they love festivals,” she said.

Unusual activities are also very popular.

“We had a speed-dating event that people just loved,” said Hilberg, who also organizes senior activities for the city of Bonney Lake. “Another activity director I talked to said her group did a scavenger hunt on a lake with electric boats. They loved that. It’s a challenge sometimes to find new things. But we go to our seniors a lot and ask them what do they want to do, and they tell us.”

In that vein, Cotter said she’d like to put in a plug for a lot more hands-on offerings.

“Even though I’m a woman, I’d like to do woodworking, things like that, maybe ceramics,” Cotter said. “We’re living so much longer, how long can you sit around and play cards?”

Age gaps

If you think about it, the term “senior” actually encompasses a group of people from age 50 to over age 100.

That’s a huge span of time and changing cultural ideas to work with, Deane said.

“It’s massive — just think of a newborn child up to people age 50 now, that’s a major age gap,” she said. “So boomers don’t want to be called seniors, and the older seniors, they have interests in a different variety of things than the boomers. It’s a whole new mix and we’re still trying to figure it all out.”

And while the baby boom might be the fastest-growing group of new seniors, prolonged lifespans and better medicines also have the over-100 crowd on the rise.

“We’ve had five centenarian birthdays in just the last six months,” Deane said. “Before recently we’d have one at most maybe every two years. That’s on top of the boomers, who will have a huge impact on our community in the next 10-15 years. By 2020 or 2025 we’ll have 25-30 percent more seniors than we have today. It’s going to be very interesting to see how everything changes to meet their demands.”