Donna Johnson felt like she was stepping into a dream when she walked into the senior center in Durango, Colorado. The small city near the New Mexico border has a population under 20,000.
“When we walked in the door, this place was hopping,” Johnson said. “There was a big white board listing the day’s activities.”
Classes include Tai chi, Zumba, yoga and line dancing for active seniors and a “Watch Your Step” fall prevention and fitness class for those who are less active.
Johnson said parking was conveniently close with covered options.
“There was a really nice, professional kitchen that was open to the dining room,” she said. “They had a salad bar. People were lined up. The dining room was really full.”
The facility included a computer room and a smaller kitchen for events.
“The director said she spent most of her time writing grants,” Johnson said. “They get funding from a number of different places. The people in there were lively and happy. There were people with walkers and wheelchairs and all different levels of mobility.”
• Portrait of a 21st century senior center: The National Council on Aging estimates that about one million older adults attend senior centers daily. A number of studies indicate that in addition to meals and socialization, the best senior centers provide intergenerational activities, learning opportunities, health promotion and volunteer activities.
A look at studies coming out of Tennessee, Louisiana and New York confirm what a Norman senior advocacy group has been telling the city council for the past few months: a senior center is more than a building, it’s a quality-of-life issue.
“I’m 83 years old,” senior activist Nadine Jewell said. “I’m not going to be around by the time they get this building. I’m not doing this for me. I’ve been around the country, and I’ve seen what they do in other senior centers.”
Programming is an important element of a 21st century senior center, according to local seniors and national experts from AARP, the American Society on Aging and the National Institute of Senior Centers, but it isn’t the whole picture.
Space, funding and accessibility are also key elements. In particular, Norman seniors said they want to be part of a larger, intergenerational community.
“The last thing old people need is isolation,” Johnson said. “That’s why they go to senior centers, but then the old people are isolated with each other.”
• Andrews Park still preferred site: A stand-alone center in Andrews Park across from the new library is Jewell’s ideal scenario.
“The proximity to the library allows a lot more informal contact” with other generations, she said.
Former council member Bette Maffucci also likes Andrews Park as a location, but the parking lot is key to her.
“The main reason we didn’t want that [existing library remodel] is the vertical parking,” Maffucci said.
She said sidewalks may make it safe, but it’s a long way to walk.
“I know this from all of the senior citizen centers I’ve visited,” Maffucci said. “People don’t gripe about walking between cars — they gripe about walking too far and not having enough handicapped spaces.”
Maffucci likes the Veterans Center parking lot. She wants a long building with parking close to the entry.
“You should have parking all the way around the building,” Jewell said. “[Architect Rick] McKinney said there is no way to remodel that [existing library] to have covered parking or close parking.”
Robert Husky opposes the remodel for the same reasons.
“The parking isn’t wonderful, and you’re too far from the library,” he said.
Husky likes the Andrews Park site.
“I really agree with having as many [parking] spaces as possible close to the building,” he said.
Husky said design is important, but just adding more handicapped spaces isn’t the answer.
Citizens for a 21st Century Senior Center President Jim Jinkins said he supports the Andrews Park site.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” Jinkins said. “The council has taken steps to move this in the direction of a stand-alone.”
• Finding money in plain sight: More than 10 percent of Norman’s population is age 65 or over. Johnson said it’s not unreasonable to ask for 6 percent of Norman Forward’s $148 million price tag to fund a $9 million senior center.
“No one’s asking them to give up their soccer fields,” Johnson said. “There’s a whole lot of money here, you can siphon off a little bit for us.”
She proposes taking 6 percent more or less from other projects. Other seniors support using some saved money from other Norman Forward projects to cobble together the funding package.
“Norman Forward was sold as a quality-of-life program,” Jewell said. “The seniors should have a place where they can interact with other age groups.”
Low sales tax receipts dampened early hopes for excess money in Norman Forward to fund the senior center, but bond interest rates are also low, and projects may come in below budget due to the depressed economy. The Westwood pool bid came in nearly 16 percent below budget.
Jinkins appreciates the city council exploring a general obligation bond but said that should not determine the site.
“I do not want us to be forced into a situation where the remodeled library is the only answer,” Jinkins said. “I appreciate the conclusion the council came to last [Tuesday] night. I think they are dedicated to helping us get a stand-alone center.”
In a New York study, photos show seniors belly dancing, having blood pressure checked and learning calligraphy.
“It’s not just a place for people to play dominoes or go for one meal a day or to learn how to do their taxes,” Johnson said. “They’re alive.”