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Senior centers try to stay in step with boomers

The Spokane Valley Senior Center’s line dancing class attracted this family of family of three: front left to right, Amber Backus, holding daughter Sophia, 4 months, and mother Lou Nick. Many of the region’s senior centers are trying to reinvent themselves to attract aging boomers. (Colin Mulvany)
The Spokane Valley Senior Center’s line dancing class attracted this family of family of three: front left to right, Amber Backus, holding daughter Sophia, 4 months, and mother Lou Nick. Many of the region’s senior centers are trying to reinvent themselves to attract aging boomers. (Colin Mulvany)

An estimated 10,000 Americans will turn 60 today, and 10,000 more will celebrate tomorrow – and the next day. And so it will continue for another 16 years, according to the Pew Research Center.

The steady march of the baby boom generation might look like a surging market for the nation’s 11,000 senior citizen centers to recruit, but, to their dismay, boomers have been reluctant.

The most common explanation? They don’t think of themselves as old, and they aren’t interested in the activities they expect to find at senior citizen centers.

“We still have a bit of the reputation that it’s applesauce and bingo,” said Bonnie McDade, director of Spokane’s Southside Senior and Community Center.

But while McDade and other administrators in the Spokane area accept that luring the boomers requires a new image, they’re unwilling to abandon the 80-, 90- and 100-year-olds who helped build the current organizations – and for whom the centers are often a lifeline.

“That’s the big concern,” says Cal Coblentz, director of the Sinto Senior Activity Center. “How do we embrace the new senior and not dishonor our elders that are here?”

By definition, baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, meaning they now range in age from 49 to 67. Whether the leading edge of that group qualifies as “old” depends on one’s point of view. A Pew survey conducted in 2009 showed that Americans between 18 and 29 think old age begins at 60, but people over 65 say it’s 74.

The Washington State Senior Center Association has been wrestling with the dilemma for the past decade, said Karen Clark-Parson, director of the Spokane Valley Senior Citizens Association. “How are we going to program for the boomers and folks that could be our parents’ age?”

The group addressed the topic head-on at its annual conference this year in Spokane

“The consensus at the end,” as McDade describes it, “was we don’t market to baby boomers now as such because the baby boomers are going to move into an older group, and we will continue to do what we’ve been doing.”

McDade, however, disagrees. “I think we have to change what we’re doing.”

Clearly, others in the Spokane area concur, and change is underway. Centers and their clientele may differ from one organization to the next, but their activity calendars and program offerings reflect a shared commitment to more vigorous physical activity such as Pilates, pickleball, tai chi, yoga, Zumba, body conditioning and table tennis.

Center directors are hesitant to describe the overall challenge as a survival issue, but attracting boomers is about more than just bolstering the membership rolls.

All funding is important, but neither dues nor the amounts received from Spokane’s Park Board provide the major source of the centers’ income.

The top revenue source is the fees charged for use of the physical facilities. That could mean weddings, church services and other activities for users, including nonmembers, who rent portions of the buildings. And it could be special offerings such as tours, including foreign travel.

But it also includes the modest fees charged members and nonmembers to participate in an array of basic activities such as dance classes or playing cards.

The missing baby boomers could provide a financial boost if more of them were engaging in those activities.

Bill Staeb, 84, was one of the originals when the Southside Center launched regular Texas Hold ’em games. By his account, he and his fellow poker enthusiasts paid $4,500 to the center last year for the use of the room where they play. He has misgivings.

“I was always of the assumption – and assumption will get you in trouble – that if you joined one of those places your dues covered what you wanted to do at the center.”

Needless to say, it was poorly received when McDade decided in January 2012 to raise the fees, including doubling what the Texas Hold ’em group had been paying.

Some players quit coming, says Staeb. And McDade – whose 12-year-old center has a mortgage that others don’t face – heard complaints that those other centers charge their participants less.

“Tell me,” McDade recalls telling some of the upset players, “where can you go and sit for 843 hours a year for 25 cents an hour? At what restaurant? At what place? Where are you going to be able to find it? You can’t, anywhere.”

The increases went through.

“And guess what? Since that time they have done three Texas Hold ’em tournament fundraisers for us,” McDade said.

All the proceeds have gone toward a burn-the-mortgage fund.

But Staeb is experiencing the same difficulty with his poker games that McDade and the other center leaders are trying to solve at their level.

“We’re trying to get younger members involved,” he said. “But people that are 60 now feel they are a lot younger than we were at 60. They don’t want to go down and play cards with a bunch of old people.”

If new seniors would just come through the door and see what’s really happening, many believe, it might conquer their skepticism.

“Once they are here they realize there are older people here, but not people in wheelchairs and walkers,” said Christa Richardson, executive director of the Corbin Senior Activity Center.

It’s generally understood that one of the surest motivators for visiting a senior center is to find social connections or companionship after the loss of a spouse through death or divorce.

But there are less grim strategies that show promise, too. Appealing to boomers’ volunteerism impulses, for example, or playing off of their connections with their own parents or children.

Craig Detmer, who recently turned 60, is an avid dancer.

“I’m still in great health. I’m active. I don’t see myself as an old person,” he said.

The Spokane Valley Senior Center appealed to him – not as a senior – but as a dancer who wanted someplace to pursue an interest that he first took up at the coaxing of his father.

“My dad is almost 96 years old. He still ballroom dances four times a week. He credits his good health to dancing, and for a long time he encouraged me to dance, to go to the senior dances with him.”

In fact, that’s where Craig Detmer met his 77-year-old wife, Joan, who was an experienced tap dancer. They married four years ago, and now they volunteer to run a ballroom dance program at the Spokane Valley center. And Detmer’s 96-year-old father still shows up.

In a separate class, also at the Spokane Valley center, Amber Backus, 35, brings her 4-month-old baby, Sophie, and they are joined by Backus’ mother, Lou Nick, 63, for a line-dancing class. The baby “dances” along in a sling carrier. It’s an example of personal connections that draw participants while crossing generational lines.

Meanwhile, during last month’s tour of open houses at the city of Spokane’s senior and youth centers, two friends and shirttail kin of Sinto director Cal Coblentz decided to join the Sinto center, inspired by Coblentz’s determination to attract boomers.

Mark Skubinna is 60; his wife, Annette, is 59, and their outlook is much like so many of their peers.

“My dad’s 60, and my 60 are two different things in my mind,” Mark Skubinna said.

But the Skubinnas, like Detmer, see their role as volunteers as much as members. And they think intergenerational relationships may hold an answer.

“One of the ways … is if we showed up on occasion to assimilate ourselves into some of the things they (older seniors) like to do,” Mark Skubinna said.

Senior center leaders concede they don’t have an answer yet to the boomer riddle, but they show no signs of giving up or of compromising their values.

“I’m not about to push the seniors out,” says the Southside Center’s McDade, “but baby boomers really are seniors – as much as they don’t want to hear it.”