The sitting area at the new Elkridge 50+ Center is like a family room. A fireplace crackles in the background, books and games line the shelves and friends sit reading and playing cards.
The feeling of home is exactly the vibe that center director Jeannie DeCray wanted to create, a place where older adults can feel comfortable.
Last Friday afternoon at the center, which had its grand opening in March, four friends bent over a table in the family room, concentrating on a game of Pinochle. The women, who met after joining one of the county’s 50+ centers, said they appreciate the fitness, social and arts activities the center offers.
Karen Perkins, 65, and Carol Gibson, 75, said they use the Elkridge center’s fitness room almost daily -- it was one of the additions in the center’s renovation they were most excited about.
Kate Hale, 78, said she joined the center five years ago as a way to help her continue to stay in good health and socialize. She’s taken several group fitness classes at the center, including a balance class. She’s learning to play Pinochle, though she admits the card game is an “uphill battle.”
“Hearing our ages can be for some people a turnoff and that’s very misleading,” Hale said. “The ‘old people’ are very active [and] quite fit. They’re looking to engage in all kinds of activities, puzzles, arts, education.”
Hale’s outlook is the kind of staying-active perspective the county’s Office on Aging and Independence is trying to tap.
Howard County spends just under $2 million a year to operate its six 50+ centers, and a $350,088 budget increase is being proposed to pay for newly hired staff to run the larger Elkridge center and to extend weekend and evening hours at four of the centers.
As part of the $6.8 million renovation at Elkridge, Assistant Director Jeanne Slater said the focus was to create space for multiple programs to run at the same time, something that was impossible in the old one-room facility.
Now, two classrooms, a multipurpose room that can be divided for the center’s daily lunch and group classes, the lounge area and a fitness equipment room can all be used for programs. The renovation expanded the center’s footprint from 2,200 square feet to 10,000 square feet.
Friday afternoon, patrons were in a line-dancing class in the multipurpose room while Hale’s group was playing cards.
When she first saw the new center, Slater said, “I thought I died and went to senior center heaven.”
Elkridge’s renovation began in 2014, and is part of an effort from the Office on Aging to offer a wider variety of programs and resources to help older adults, beginning at age 50, to lead mentally and physically healthy lifestyles.
The centers have risen in popularity over the last five years, in part because of an increased focus on healthy living, said Barbara Scher, manager of the 50+ centers division in the county Office in Aging.
In 2014, the centers had 165,300 visits. This year, Scher said the division is projecting to hit 236,700. At Elkridge, attendance has spiked since its opening. Slater estimates 70 people come through the doors each day, up from 20 at the old center.
Patronage has increased as adults, closer to 50, have begun using the centers for $75 a year fitness-center access, Scher said. The centers’ equipment also has been adapted for the frail and those in wheelchairs.
The centers, especially the fitness facilities, have become so popular that this year the Department of Community Resources and Services, which houses the Office on Aging, requested $100,000 from the county to expand its night and weekend hours at Elkridge, Ellicott City, East Columbia and Bain centers.
By expanding hours, Scher said it will allow people who are working full-time, which she said makes up an increasing number of users, to exercise in the evenings and on weekends. Additional hours are projected to require six to eight additional part-time employees and Scher hopes to see the change implemented in September.
“People are much more interested in living better and being engaged and so fitness is a big piece of that and very popular,” Scher said. “As we add centers we start to attract younger older adults. The fitness center because it’s so modestly priced, it’s a great deal.
“There’s really no reason for people not to join,” Scher said. “It was intentionally done that way so we would get people engaged in healthy aging sooner, so then when they’re 75, 85 and 90 hopefully they’ll be healthier.”
The 43 percent spike in center users countywide tracks the county’s changing demographics. In 2010, just over 10 percent of the county’s 287,129 population was over 65. By 2035, officials estimate that to more than double, to 21 percent.
Howard’s population change is in line with national trends as more people are living longer, healthier lives, said Donna Wagner, a gerontologist and dean of the College of Health and Social Services at New Mexico State University.
Longer life spans are leading more people to retire later, Wagner said, and to seek out more social and fitness activities.
As more of the county ages, department Director Jackie Scott said she hopes to offer additional multi-generational programs as well as services for caregivers.
The expansion of hours into the evening and weekends will allow centers to do more multi-generational programming when students are out of school, such as a mosaic art project patrons and students created at the North Laurel 50+ Center, Scher said.
One future focus of the department, Scott said, is to help more people stay in the community by creating an “environment about wellness and empowering people to really engage in healthy lives all around.”
“How do we allow the older adult population to stay in their homes and to be able to age here in Howard County and live the best lives that they want to be able to live with the folks they are connected to,” Scott said. “So our aging in the community is really looking at providing sets of services to the older adult population that allows them to do that.”
The department is looking to continue updating its centers, next with the Bain 50+ Center in Columbia and the East Columbia 50+ Center. County Executive Allan Kittleman’s proposed 2019 capital budget includes $1.4 million for the design and renovation of the Bain center, in Columbia, and the county’s 2018 capital budget included $200,000 for the planning and design of the expansion of the East Columbia center.
Howard County’s priority on its 50+ Centers and active aging is part of what makes it a leader in the field, Wagner said.
“I think they’ve actually listened to the seniors that live there and created programs and services to meet their needs in a much more sensitive way than other communities,” Wagner said. “And they haven’t been afraid to take a plunge into the next step of developing a senior center.
“Instead of saying, ‘It’s good enough for us to have a hot lunch and some passive activities,’ the new model says, ‘Wait we have to teach some foreign languages, we have to provide lectures,’ ” Wagner said. “Howard County is pretty ahead of the curve.”