We spotted this piece in the Chicago Sun-Times, and although it’s written from a very local, suburban Chicago point of view, it could be written from virtually every community in America. So we thought you’d read it with that in mind, because it raises questions that all baby boomers are dealing with: what do we call ourselves? How do we see ourselves? Is a “name change” enough?
They’ve been known as Baby Boomers their entire lives, but there’s another term that many from the post-World War II generation doesn’t want to be called.
It’s a mindset that Park Ridge Senior Center leaders believe is dissuading younger retirees from joining the 33-year-old institution. It’s also factored into plans to possibly change the name of the building and the name of its collective membership as well.
“Boomers like to not think they’re old, and it’s the ‘old’ issue that prevents the 55- to 70-year-olds [from joining],” suggested Carla Bush, a Baby Boomer herself, and a member of the Park Ridge Park District’s Senior Center Advisory Council. “It’s a tough sell.”
Bush’s comments came as the Advisory Council met April 10 to discuss a possible name change for the center and the need to attract more members in their 50s and60s. The council agreed to direct Park District staff to seek suggestions for a new name from the current Senior Center members themselves. The names will then go before the Advisory Council members for review and possibly a recommendation.
Changing the name of the neighboring Park Ridge Community Center to better reflect the aquatics and fitness activities it contains has also been explored, according to April Armer, superintendent of recreation for the Park District. Between these discussions, the new Centennial Park aquatics facility and the competing Kemnitz Center for Active Adults possibly opening this year in Niles, Armer suggested it was an opportunity to consider a name change for the Senior Center.
“Maybe it’s just time for an overall look at this entire space and names for each facility,” she said.
Jennifer Meyers, Senior Center manager, agreed that the word “senior” can be a turn-off for many from the Baby Boom generation.
“One of the issues I hear from younger seniors is that they don’t want to be considered seniors, ‘55-plusers’ or even active adults,” she said.
And it’s not just a Park Ridge issue. Meyers pointed to a 2012 article from National Parks and Recreation Association in which Ellen O’Sullivan, president of a “leisure lifestyle” consulting firm for Park Districts, is quoted as saying, “A challenge in involving baby boomers is to not refer to them as ‘seniors’ or offer programming in a facility that is called ‘the senior center.’ The designation ‘senior’ is fine for their parents’ generation, but not at all for the ‘don’t trust anyone over 30 years of age’ cohort group that has a focus upon being perceived as forever youthful.”
The article also mentions a senior group in Kansas that changed its name to the “50-Plus Department” and now avoids the word “senior” in its programming descriptions.
Meyers also said some centers geared toward adults 55 years and older no longer have the word “senior center” in their titles, like the Patty Turner Center in Deerfield, which was once called the Patty Turner Senior Center.
David Shamrock, manager of the Turner Center, refers to members as “active adults” and believes offering a wide array of programs, including dances, trips andfestive activities like a Mardi Gras celebration, are key to the center’s growing membership, which currently numbers 760 people.
“I think what we’re beginning to see is a transition,” he said. “We have a very active membership here of long-standing members, but at the same time, because of these newer offerings and more abundant offerings, we’re seeing an influx of new membership. And it’s not only younger active adults in their 60s and 70s. We’re also beginning to see more members coming in from other demographics [and communities].”
Meyers said the Park Ridge Senior Center does not track the exact ages of its members, though the majority are over 70. She added it can be a challenge to combine the needs and desires of those in their 50s and 60s with those in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
“We have to have a fine balance between getting these new members that are younger and accommodating our older members who are still actively participating,” Meyers said.
Meyers noted that many recent retirees are still active in fitness programs, which the Community Center already offers. Advisory Council member Roger Loeffler said this would be the perfect place to recruit new member and promote the Senior Center. A suggestion of combining some programs between the Senior Center and Community Center was also made at the April 10 meeting.
According to the 2010 Census, there are 8,500 Park Ridge residents between the ages of 50 and 64, and another 6,886 over age 65. Combined, this accounts for about 41percent of the city’s population.
Despite this, the number of Park Ridge Senior Center members has dropped dramatically in recent years, falling from 821 members in 2011-12 to less than 600 members this year. This has occurred amidst legal battles between the Park District and Senior Seniors, Inc., a group which left to create the Kemnitz Center.
Senior Center membership is also made up of residents from a number of other communities.
A name change could also reflect the other uses of the Senior Center. Meyers said the primary purpose of the building will remain providing activities for people 55 years and up, but when membership is not using it in the evenings, activities open to a wider range of ages are offered.
“We try to focus on all adults, really,” Meyers said. “We have adult classes that run here in the evenings and weekends. We try to include a variety of programs, not just for seniors, but general adults 21 and over.”
Some of these programs include evening ceramics, wine and cheese tastings, guest speakers and a summer barbecue with a bingo and bags tournament.
Bush, whosays she has embraced her new status as a “senior,” suggested that perception, not the activities themselves, might be one of the Senior Center’s biggest challenges when it comes to new membership.
“When I came here, this place, to me, was all sedentary. But it’s not really, if you pay attention carefully,” she said. “I realized there’s a whole lot here that really does appeal to my younger friends.”