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What Do You Call a Senior Center Without 'Senior'?

Brian Morris/WCAI

As people age into their 60s, 70s and 80s, senior centers can offer a way to stay active and engaged. But many senior centers also suffer from an identity crisis. One Cape Cod senior center has been broadening its programs and activities to attract people who otherwise might never set foot inside.

In a function room at the Barnstable Senior Center, Carl Bertelsman holds an iPad in one had as he runs through the settings on the device to a room full of seniors.

Some of the 13 people in the room say they want to learn how to work iPads and iPhones to keep up with their social media savvy grandkids. But a class on mobile devices is the last thing the center might have offered only a decade ago.

“Senior centers around the country have been steadily changing, and we are one of many that are trying to figure out how we evolve to continue to meet the needs of a whole different generation of older adults,” said Madeline Noonan, the Center’s Director.

The center is a bright, airy facility with about 20,000 square feet of space. Noonan has overseen an evolution at the facility during her 10 years there, introducing high-impact exercise classes like Zumba, hula-hoop classes, and an African drumming class.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
Barnstable Senior Center Director Madeline Noonan.

Those new trends also are taking hold at senior centers state-wide. Donna Popkin is with the Massachusetts Councils on Aging, a trade association for senior center workers.

According to Popkin, the shift began in the early 2000’s, with a new focus on wellness and health. And as baby-boomers have aged into the senior population, there’s also a focus on things like estate and tax planning, or how to enroll in Medicare for the first time.

“Many of them are younger seniors—they might be early 60s—caregivers for older parents…and so they’re looking for resources,” Popkin said. (Changing attitudes are also evident at the national level. Last January, the Administration on Aging, a Federal agency, changed its name to the Administration on Community Living.)

Gary Sylvester is one of roughly 2,000 people who take advantage of programs at the Barnstable Senior Center. He’s been on the Cape for 30 years, and says getting new people in the door is key—especially those who may initially bristle at the idea of coming.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
Gary Sylvester is one of about 2,000 people who utilize programs at the Barnstable Senior Center.

“There are a lot of people who are in their 50s, 60s or even 70s who do not admit that they are seniors,” he said. “And that’s one of the things that holds people back from utilizing this facility—because they say ‘We’re not old enough to be here.’ That is a mindset that they have.”

Madeline Noonan wants to upend that mindset. She’s spearheading a campaign to change the name of the facility, removing the word 'senior.' A similar effort about a decade ago fizzled out. But times have changed, and Noonan is hoping that now may finally be the right moment.

“Plymouth recently changed their name…they are now the Center for Active Living,” she said. “There’s no age associated with that, because everybody’s aging… you know, from the moment we’re born, we’re aging.”

Jennifer Young is Director of the Center for Active Living in Plymouth. Five years ago, the town built the community a new 18,000-square foot facility. Young saw that as a perfect opportunity.

“If we’re gonna look at changing the face of aging in Plymouth, this is the time to do it. You know, we need to change our name, change what we’re calling ourselves,” Young said.

She says the name change campaign has been slowly evolving from the talking stages to reality.

“It’s taken that long…from, sort of the whispers in the hallway of, ‘We’re actively living, we’re not aging, we’re actively living,’" Young said.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
Bobbi Field of W. Hyannisport works on a cardio drumming routine with instructor Maria Zombas.

At the Barnstable Senior Center, Bobbi Field of West Hyannisport participated in a cardio drumming routine, working with instructor Maria Zombas.

“I like something uplifting and fun—a lot of positive energy. You know, it’s not just for “senior” seniors. I’m gonna be 70 soon, so I’m maybe one of the younger seniors, I think,” said Field.

Overall, senior centers on Cape Cod enjoy strong financial support from town governments. Several towns like Falmouth, Chatham and Dennis, are planning new or expanded facilities to meet the needs of an increasingly active senior population.