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Originally published February 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 13, 2007 at 12:28 PM

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Senior centers reach for new life

At age 57, Kevin Shea is one of the youngest members of the Greenwood Senior Center. It's a distinction he's yet to embrace wholeheartedly...

Seattle Times staff reporter

At age 57, Kevin Shea is one of the youngest members of the Greenwood Senior Center. It's a distinction he's yet to embrace wholeheartedly.

Rather, he considers himself a volunteer who spends numerous hours a week at the center keeping the new computers running. He also serves on the center's board of directors. And he does eat lunch there occasionally and did attend a talk on gardening. Also, the new evening Spanish class looks intriguing, so he might sign up.

But "I don't really think of myself as a member as such to socialize," said Shea, who retired early after a career in computers. "Most of the people there are in a different generation ... I don't find I have a lot in common with them."

Despite his ambivalence, Shea is exactly the kind of member the Greenwood Senior Center is trying to attract in order to survive.

"One of the problems, of course, is that seniors are dying off," said member Wanda Moore, 80. "They're trying desperately to encourage the 55- to 65-year-old seniors to come in."

The Greenwood Senior Center is among nine such centers scattered around Seattle in neighborhoods from Wallingford to Beacon Hill and West Seattle.

The challenges they face — and in some cases, it's a fight for survival — are common across the state and nation.

"We all are grappling with the question: What does the future hold?" said Kathy Armstrong, Spokane board member with the Washington State Association of Senior Centers.

In Seattle, some of the centers are independent, others sponsored by Senior Services, a nonprofit social-services agency. The city and others give the centers money, but the amount varies tremendously and fundraising is a constant struggle. Many buildings need upgrades.

"Everybody is really struggling for resources," said Kathleen Cromp, executive director of the Wallingford Senior Center. "... Our average age is over 80 years old."

The Seattle City Council has a study under way to determine what role senior centers should play in the community and what they must do to stay relevant.

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"We really can't wait any longer," said Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, who proposed the review.

"They will either continue to decline and close their doors, or we will reinvigorate them and meet the needs of this next generation coming up."

It's a tough proposition.

Baby boomers aren't known to be joiners. The competition for their time is great. And as a group, they tend to be more physically active and have more money.

"The whole concept of senior center puts people off," Shea explains. "They don't identify with senior centers."

Centers themselves aging

Most of the nation's senior centers are about 25 to 35 years old, born after the 1965 Older Americans Act provided money for centers and services for the aged.

Seattle's centers were formed largely by civic-minded residents who saw a need to provide more neighborhood-based services for elders.

Today, many are in a balancing act: serving a clientele that's growing frailer while trying to attract people who may still be employed or only recently retired.

So they still offer the traditional bingo, card games, foot care and reduced-price midday meals. But they may also tout "healthy aging" programs and computer labs.

New activities might be language classes and lectures on how to care for aging parents as well as cross-country skiing and biking. Hours may be extended to evenings and weekends to accommodate the still-working senior.

As for who signs up, it's as much a matter of attitude as age. Plenty of World War II-era seniors are eager for these new opportunities as well.

A singular focus

Cities like Bothell and Kent have taken a more focused approach.

Instead of trying to support several smaller centers, they've dedicated resources to one huge, modern one with a robust budget.

The Northshore Senior Center in Bothell — regarded as one of the premier centers in the nation — doesn't go after one age group or another. It emphasizes health and wellness, listening to what participants want and relying on them to help run the center.

Kent openly courts baby boomers. Its senior center Web site boasts "a new marketing focus" dubbed "Kent 50 plus" that intends to overcome "the average boomer's aversion to the word senior."

"We saw the writing on the wall," said Lea Bishop, manager of the Kent Senior Activity Center, which claims a million-dollar budget and 22,000 square feet, including a new fitness center. "As baby boomers age, they're going to want some different kinds of activities than the traditional senior center."

Dennis and Sandy LaBelle, who both turn 60 this year, found what they wanted at Kent.

The early retirees arrive five mornings a week to exercise or line-dance. Afterward, they have coffee with their classmates, whose ages range up to the mid-80s.

To them, Kent's center doesn't look anything like "a senior center," and it's cheaper than a gym or personal trainer. And their older classmates are inspiring.

"When we got into this class, 70- and 80-year-olds were kicking our butts," said Dennis LaBelle.

About 300 to 400 people use the center daily, with the average member age dropping in the last few years from about 77 to 69 or 70.

And more folks in their late 50s are starting to show up.

Reviving Greenwood

In stark contrast, the Greenwood Senior Center — housed in converted medical offices on North 85th Street — fell on dire times about three years ago.

Senior Services had dropped the center, saying it was because of a $43,000 cumulative debt and a decline in use.

But Greenwood's members refused to let their center die. A core group managed the center without pay for months and also turned to the Phinney Neighborhood Association for help.

An agreement was struck later that made the senior center a program of the neighborhood association: They would share memberships and some resources — a good deal for both, but also risky.

Phinney knew interest in senior centers is dwindling. Greenwood knew it might lose its unique identity.

The merger strategy has accelerated talk of "gearing up for this age wave," says the center's new director, Cecily Kaplan. For starters, leaders in the two groups are already debating what to call the center.

"Do you even want to keep the name 'senior' in the center?" asks Ed Medeiros, executive director of the Phinney Neighborhood Association. " ... There are probably a thousand different creative ways to say the focus is toward aging."

Kaplan is not convinced the word senior is a negative — "It is a badge of honor in a lot of ways." What's important, she said, is the substance of what's offered behind the name.

Plans are afoot to make the center more attractive with a spruced-up entrance and bathrooms. A few new offerings include conversational Spanish, Pilates and a support group for those with aging-parent concerns. An AmeriCorps volunteer is working primarily with boomers at the center.

And Greenwood has sort of captured Kevin Shea.

A longtime member of the Phinney Neighborhood Association, Shea was dispatched to help the senior center with its computers. Soon he was recruited for the board. And he's worked on projects with some of the older seniors — "nice people," he said, who've shared some remarkable history.

But, like most boomers, he still doesn't find the idea of a senior center personally attractive, allowing with a laugh:

"Part of it is that people just don't want to think of themselves as old."

Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or mking@seattletimes.com

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