Seniors & Aging

Bellingham Senior Center seeks more ‘young old’ members

Jim Garnett, left, and Bill Bergland, right, discuss the beers they got at Wander Brewing, 1807 Dean Ave., during a Bellingham Senior Activity Center outing July 7.
Jim Garnett, left, and Bill Bergland, right, discuss the beers they got at Wander Brewing, 1807 Dean Ave., during a Bellingham Senior Activity Center outing July 7. The Bellingham Herald

When 66-year-old Marcia Corey first went to Bellingham Senior Activity Center three years ago, she was only seeking resources for her elderly neighbors. She wasn’t expecting anything for herself.

“I wasn’t in there for me,” she says, “but it turned out to be absolutely for me.”

Since her first visit, Corey has jumped into a wide range of activities. She now volunteers at the front desk, teaches a weekly class called Brainpower, and serves on the advisory board of the center and the board of the Whatcom County Council on Aging. Corey’s participation has enabled her to use the strategic planning and leadership skills she honed during her career as a manager for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C.

“I love the Bellingham Senior Activity Center,” she says, “and wish others age 50 and older would find it too.”

The director of the center agrees. Christy Bell is working with AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Ariana Dorshkind to attract more people in their 50s and 60s to the center. So far, getting that group in the door is the biggest challenge.

One problem is figuring out a name for their target audience. They’ve tried many ideas. “Active adults.” “Younger seniors.” “Mature adults.” “Young old.” “Boomers.” And others.

So far, nothing sticks.

“There’s no flattering way to address that age group,” says Bell, a member of the cohort herself.

She and Dorshkind have been expanding offerings and the schedule at the center to accommodate people in the unnameable age group, many of whom are still working. For example, they’ve started Tuesday evening tai chi classes, and a popular Saturday watercolor class.

This summer, Dorshkind has led a weekly gathering to explore local breweries, a program called the Bellingham Tap Trail. The first week, eight people in their 60s and 70s came. The number nearly doubled the next week. Several people joined who didn’t initially know it was a center activity.

The center has also expanded its hours to Saturday mornings, to make it easier for people with jobs to drop by. Access to the center and its programs costs only the $38-a-year membership fee, which covers admission to most activities and to the center’s weight room.

In addition, some center programs might already appeal to the “younger older” demographic. The center’s Trail Blazers group takes weekly hikes, many of them rigorous, and dance programs are also popular.

In the future, some of those activities might be expanded to accommodate people who are working.

Bell says it’s important and helpful to attract people in their 50s and 60s to a center full of people in their 70s and 80s who don’t mind being called “seniors.” That’s because the center can help people during times of transition, she says.

Dealing with retirement or the loss of a spouse can lead to a sense of emptiness, Bell says, so having something stable in place can make an enormous difference during such times of change.

“We’re not just a senior center,” Bell says. “It’s so much more; it’s a community.”

Statistics about health and aging point to the importance of social connections and physical activity. The center provides both.

“We’re a resource for people as they age,” Bell says.

The challenge is that people currently in their 50s and 60s have a hard time admitting that they’re growing older, that major transitions are coming in their lives.

In addition, Dorshkind says, many people have the erroneous idea that Bellingham Senior Activity Center is an assisted-living center. That misconception keeps people away who could gain from being involved with the organization.

Once people in the “young old” age group come to the center, they frequently see how much it has to offer for the low cost of membership, and how easy it is to share their skills with other members. That’s what Marcia Corey has done, and she calls on others in their 50s and 60s to do the same.

“Instead of ‘give peace a chance,’ it should be ‘give cool aging a chance,’’ she says. “Come help the center become the cool aging resource, both for yourself and the community.”

Margi Fox is a Bellingham writer.

Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Address: 315 Halleck St.

Phone: 360-733-4030.

Online: wccoa.org/index.php/BellinghamSeniorActivityCenter

Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

Membership: $38 a year.

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