Senior centers attract boomers, diversify programs in the Lowcountry

Physical trainer Barbara Gentle (in white) leads an exercise class at the Mount Pleasant Senior Center. Fitness classes are the most popular activity at many local senior centers. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
Physical trainer Barbara Gentle (in white) leads an exercise class at the Mount Pleasant Senior Center. Fitness classes are the most popular activity at many local senior centers. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
By Lauren Ratcliffe
Published Dec. 17, 2012

With most baby boomers over the age of 50, senior centers are feeling a crunch to offer more services and become a hub for social activity for a diverse sector of the population.

In Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, 30% of the population is over the age of 50 — thus nearly one-third of the population is eligible for membership at a senior center.

“There are older adults everywhere,” said Elizabeth Bernat, executive director of the Lowcountry Senior Center on James Island. “It’s such a large cohort.”

Fran Corley of Mount Pleasant visits with friends at the Mount Pleasant Senior Center. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
Fran Corley of Mount Pleasant visits with friends at the Mount Pleasant Senior Center. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
Bernat said that before baby boomers started joining these centers, programming was easier to provide. The World War II generation had more homogeneity in their world view and values — but the baby boomers are different, she said.

“You’ve got the first career women retiring,” she said. “What they are looking for in retirement is completely different than what a woman 10 to 15 years older than her would be looking for.”

Gary Jaster, senior coordinator for the Mount Pleasant Senior Center and director of the Thomasena Stokes-Marshall center, said because the age requirement for membership at a senior center is age 50, some members are still actively working.

“We have three generations of seniors here,” he said. “Our programming has to be wide and varied enough to attract them all.”

Attracting members
Inside the Thomasena Stokes-Marshall center, there are groups of people chatting in the cafe and lobby, a waiting list of handprinted names hangs in the crowded gym.

Membership for the Mount Pleasant center has seen an increase of about 200% since it opened its doors in October 2008 — growing from between 500 and 800 members during those first few months to more than 2,200.

Similarly, on James Island, the Lowcountry Senior Center has seen rapid growth. In 10 years, the facility grew its membership from about 700 to 1,500.

Bernat said that while attracting members hasn’t been particularly difficult, when they look at the total eligible population, they still have work to do.

“When people think senior center, the immediate reaction is ‘I would never go to a senior center,’” she said. “No one wants to be old. But actually, it’s a wonderful phase of your life and we are trying to help people ease into that phase and enjoy it.”

Jaster said his center hasn’t faced the problem of combating the image of aging. He said he laughs when friends have asked him how his job ‘at the nursing home’ is going.

“It’s not rocking chairs,” he said adding that once potential members visit the center they often end up joining.

Array of options
Baby boomers are demanding more of their senior centers than what stereotypes would suggest.

“The needs and makeup of a senior center are a lot different than they were years ago,” Jaster said. “It’s not bingo and bridge.”

Jaster and the staff at the center bring in popular activities from town to diversify their programming.

“For us, exercise programs are the strongest draw,” he said. “One of our most popular programs is Zumba; we have that six times per week.”

Bernat said she thinks seniors are either joining centers at a higher level of fitness or are eager to continue progressing once they start classes.

Fitness courses are so popular that they are a main factor behind the expansion of Mount Pleasant’s facility. The senior center is expected to double in size by June next year.

“That entire wing will be exercise oriented,” Jaster said. “The existing space will be socializing and education space.”

Donna Fairhurst started coming to the Mount Pleasant Senior Center after a disability with her knees caused her to need a place to rehab. A medical professional from East Cooper Medical Center works with the center and helped Fairhurst learn exercises.

“When I first started coming, I had to learn times to come when it was less crowded,” she said.

Bernat said over the past decade she has seen a shift toward intellectual stimulation and lifetime learning, in addition to fitness.

“People really want academically stimulating programming,” she said. “They want to keep on learning with challenging topics and subjects to explore and learn and talk about. They are not going to be satisfied with a craft class.”

A place to socialize
Every Monday morning, the “Knit-wits” gather around a table in the back of the lobby of the Mount Pleasant Senior Center to chat and create. The group formed organically after some members found that they had the common interest.

“We got connected with one another and ended up in other groups too,” Fairhurst said.

With multiple conversations happening simultaneously, the women seem to all follow what the others are saying as they chat about their families, health and the creations they are making.

“This was great for me because I moved here from another place,” Barbara Shelton said. “Many of my friends, I’ve made them here.”

Fran Corley said the number of activities offered at the senior center makes it easy for people to connect with each other.

“If you can’t find something you are interested in, you aren’t looking,” she said.

For the women of the knitting group, the senior center has changed their perception of what it means to age.

“This debunks the myth that old people can’t do anything,” Beth Michi said.

“This is not an old people’s place,” Corley said. “It’s a place for people who are aged 50 and above.”

Reach Lauren Ratcliffe at 843-849-3119.

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