The parents of baby boomers grew up swimming in pools built in the 1920s and 1930s by city leaders worried that young people would drown in nearby lakes and rivers during summer heat waves.
They were mesmerized by Olympian swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in those 1930s classic films. And a new film genre – the swimming extravaganza – was created for Esther Williams, swimming champion of the 1940s.
So when the boomers swam into childhood in great numbers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, their parents willingly approved bonds to build municipal pools. In those pools, boomers learned to swim and socialize. Rich kids swam alongside poor kids.
As boomers age, pools may again become an important gathering space – and not just in the summer.
Residential communities, hoping to attract aging boomers, are betting that if they build aquatics centers, boomers will choose their retirement communities over those without pools.
Riverview Retirement Community in Spokane opened a state-of-the-art aquatics facility just two months ago.
“The residents want to show it off,” said Jennifer Corppetts, aquatics and fitness director. “The residents’ ‘kids’ are in their 50s, and they are coming here and swimming in the evening.”
In the 1985 movie “Cocoon,” aliens protect their loved ones in a private swimming pool charged with a life force. When residents of a retirement community nearby discover and swim in the pool, they suddenly walk brisker, look and feel younger, recover their zest for life. It’s a miracle.
When you sit with five pool regulars from Riverview, it feels like “Cocoon: Spokane Style.”
The residents use the new 13,000-square-foot aquatics center every day, and they also used the pool this bigger one replaced.
The five residents, ranging in age from 74 to 89, have faced serious health challenges.
Camilla Phillipson, 83, had two knee replacements and is recovering from foot surgery. Ellie Prouty, 81, had a mastectomy and serious stomach surgery.
In the past decade, Dennis Hill, 74, underwent two knee replacements, had a heart attack and stroke and then lost his wife to a stroke. He gained 60 pounds. He withdrew.
“It kind of saved my life,” he said of exercising. “We have a blast.”
The “we” includes his wife of two years, Kay Dirks-Hill, 74. He met her at Riverview. They are in the pool together every day, walking against the current in the facility’s lazy river.
Wally Phillipson, 89, goes to water aerobics three times a week.
“It gets you up in the morning,” he said. “I play golf and it builds up my stamina.”
Retirement communities, no matter how welcoming on the outside, face challenges coaxing nonresidents inside.
Some still picture “old folks homes” as dark, smelly, depressing, unaware that many now feature sports bars, small movie theaters, spas and pools.
So the challenge: Get people in the door, especially boomers, the next generation of residents.
No one is quite sure where and how boomers will choose to live in their 70s, 80s and beyond.
The retirement community industry’s building binge during the past three decades was fueled by the parents of boomers who sold off family homes and moved into the communities. Many of these older communities are now reinventing themselves to attract boomers.
Newer retirement communities are built with the future in mind.
Evergreen Fountains Senior Living Community in Spokane Valley opened in January 2008. The community focused on fitness and healing therapy from the get-go. Its pool – heated to 88 degrees – and its trainers and classes are certified by the Arthritis Foundation.
“The pool was instrumental in us leasing up,” said Gene Arger, the community’s marketing director. “We’re about 95 percent occupied.”
The community’s 130 residents range in age from 60 to 99 and “about 85 percent participate in some sort of wellness program, from the pool to the walking club,” Arger said.
Three times a week, Evergreen offers an Outside Waterworks class for Spokane-area residents. It costs $10 a class.
“The purpose was to bring people from the community into the facility and get to know our community,” Arger said.
Sharron Loveall, 70, heard about the class and joined.
“I’ve lost some weight and I’ve got more muscles,” the Otis Orchards woman said.
She’s slightly older than the regulars – boomers in their 60s.
Loveall lives in her own home and never considered moving to a retirement community. Her experience in the pool changed her mind.
“I’ve learned how much fun they have together,” she said. “It’s like a home.”
Three Affinity Living Communities, for active adults 55 and older, opened in the Inland Northwest in the past year. This summer, Affinity offered “classroom space” – its saltwater pools – to participants in ACT 2, a Community Colleges of Spokane program for lifelong learners.
At Affinity pools on the South Hill and the North Side, ACT 2 participants now take Aqua Zumba and Aquatics Fitness classes.
Cecil Rinker, director of operations for Affinity, said: “Our residents can take the class and never have to leave home, and we have new outside people coming to our community that just may fall in love with the Affinity lifestyle.”
Isolation is a killer as we age.
It shrinks brain cells. Attacks the immune system. Hastens dying.
In water aerobics classes, participants bond with one another.
“It’s a social thing,” said Kay Dirks-Hill about the water classes at Riverview. “If you don’t show up, you get phone calls. ‘What happened? Aren’t you well?’ ”
Retirement communities have been dubbed “gray ghettos” by aging experts who believe they isolate older people, especially if young people don’t visit. But kids love pools, no matter where they are located.
At Riverview, the pool is open seven days a week, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Family members are welcome any time, as long as a resident remains with them.
“With this hot weather, we’ve had many residents with their grandchildren,” said Riverview’s Corppetts. “The lazy river is an attraction.”
Riverview also opens its aquatics center to employees at any time, and their families are welcome Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
On land, grandparents sometimes lose ability to keep up with the grandchildren – can’t as easily play tag, throw softballs, dunk basketballs, jump on trampolines, play hopscotch.
“Being in water restores motion and movement that is more difficult as we age,” Rinker said. “Being in the water makes us feel like the clock turned back a bit. That just has to be good for the soul.”