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Dionne E. Young/MEDILL

Dickinson Hall Tap Fitness Class meets every Tuesday at 1 p.m.

Age is more than just a number, senior centers are finding

by Dionne E. Young
Nov 14, 2012


Dionne E. Young/MEDILL

Marla Schachtel, Dickinson Hall manager, speaks with members in the facility's library.


Dionne E. Young/MEDILL

Dickinson Hall members use fans in their Tai Chi class to show movement.


Dionne E. Young/MEDILL

Dickinson Hall's members shows off her fan during the weekly Tai Chi class.

The terms “old,” “senior” and “elderly,” do more than just describe someone’s age. They are keeping some people from accessing valuable services. Many senior centers across the country have removed age signifiers from their title, in order to attract the growing Baby Boomer population, many of whom are in or approaching their 60s.

“We went to an event once and it was full of old people,” said Jim Jacobson who is 72 and from Lake Bluff. Jacobson is a member of a center in Lake Forest but he doesn’t use their services very often.

“We’re on the young side of it. We don’t need the services quite as much yet. When 10 years go by, I’m sure we will find it much more useful,” Jacobson said. He also went to get advice about the Medicare supplement, he said, but found he did better researching the information on his own.

Senior centers are looking to attract people just like Jacobson, who fit the age requirement to be considered a senior citizen but don’t feel or behave like traditional seniors.

“Thirty-five to 40 years ago, when people retired at age 65 they felt older. They sort of were older medically speaking. Life didn’t go on as long as today,” said Marla Schachtel, manager of Dickinson Hall, which has de-emphasized the words “senior center” in its title.

Dickinson Hall is a center in Lake Forest for, as she calls them, “active seasoned adults.” It still features traditional activities like:

•Meal programs
•Social services information and assistance
•Recreational activities
•Transportation services.

But Dickinson also has expanded its programming to include a walking club, tai chi, tap classes and guest lecturers. And membership is increasing.

“Nowadays people that are retiring, you know what they say: 60 is the new 40. Basically people in their 60s and 70s are often looking at reinventing themselves,” Schachtel said.

According to 2010 Census Data, 12 percent of Illinois’s population is over 65. Which means senior centers will need to start adapting to fit the needs of almost 76 million Baby Boomers.

“Many senior centers are moving toward a wellness approach to encourage active lifestyles that include physical and intellectual pursuits,” said Betsy Creamer, of the Office of Older American Services, Illinois Department on Aging.

This year U.S. Senate bill S 3562 was drafted in an attempt to address these concerns. It would provide updates to the 1965 Older Americans Act, which established the Administration on Aging. This government agency distributes funding that supplies part of the budget for senior centers. The amendment calls for updating the language used throughout the Older Americans Act and investing in successful strategies that help to modernize senior centers. The bill was sent to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in September.

“Everyone has this myth in their head that seniors are fragile,” said Christina Ferraro, Levy Senior Center manager.

The “senior” in Evanston’s Levy Senior Center still remains, however the center has opened the facility to the public for evening activities. This approach increased participation by allowing people to pick and choose the activities they want to attend instead of being locked into a year-long membership. Five years ago the Levy Center had focus groups to determine whether to change the name and decided not to.

“Depends on what you are offering. It’s really the about the programs,” Ferraro said.