Unrelenting rains last Thursday canceled the weekly bike ride for seniors, a 20-mile jaunt from Columbia to Ellicott City and back again. But elsewhere in Howard County, the rain didn't stop the county's growing senior population.
At the Elkridge Senior Center, seniors stretched and strained in a low-impact aerobics class while other played cards in the center's weekly card games
At the Longwood Senior Center in Columbia, a dozen or so women and men were gathered to discuss their exercise habits at the first Korean language "Living Well" program in the state.
And at the East Columbia 50+ Center, one group of seniors danced to a Latin Jam dance class early in the afternoon and, a couple of hours later, another group was lying on mats on the floor, practicing Pilates under the watchful eye of instructor Susan Bisson.
"Reach, exhale, exhale, come up," said the barefooted Bisson, exhorting her charges. "Now, twist and reach, exhale, exhale, exhale and come back.
"OK! That was awesome."
On the eve of the 15th annual 50+EXPO, a popular county-organized showcase of services and programs available for seniors, signs of the county's effort to serve Howard's ever-evolving senior population abound.
The expo itself, to be held Friday, Oct. 18, is perhaps the best example.
It began 15 years ago when the county Office on Aging decided that the array of sparsely attended small fairs held every year were too much work for too little return, according to Starr Sowers, Health & Wellness Division manager in the aging office. So the small fairs were scrapped and on Oct. 22, 1999, the county held one large fair at Wilde Lake High School, in Columbia.
That first 50+EXPO was a success by any measure, attracting 3,000-4,000 people and dozens of vendors. But those numbers were just the start. The fair's popularity grew, and so did the fair, spreading out into larger sections of Wilde Lake High.
Last year, the fair attracted about 6,000 members and about 160 vendors. Only the lack of space prevents the fair from being bigger, she said, and there is a waiting list for vendors.
It's not just the numbers that have changed at the expo, Sowers said. The offerings have evolved as well, with more emphasis on health and wellness.
This year, for example, the keynote speaker is Dr. Majid Fotuhi, a Johns Hopkins-trained neurologist whose most recent book is "Boost Your Brain: The New Art and Science Behind Enhanced Brain Performance," and who next month is opening a brain center in Columbia that specializes in teaching aging men and women how to reverse the inevitable memory loss that comes with aging.
The fair also will host workshops on the importance of herbs and spices and boosting your immune system, as well as on identity theft, protecting yourself on the Internet and numerous other subjects.
"It's the demographics of Howard County," Sowers said, asked what makes the expo so popular. "Howard County is baby boomers — that's Howard County. They can come here (to the expo) and get a flu shot, go to seminars, hear the entertainment. This is a one-stop place for all this information."
Rapidly aging population
The demographics are indeed telling.
From 2000 to 2010, the 65-and-older population in Howard County increased by 57 percent — more than three times the overall population increase of 16 percent — according to a 2012 report from by the county Department of Planning and Zoning that was based on U.S. census data.
And that does not include the 92 percent increase in the 60- to 64-year-old segment of the population, the largest of any segment.
"This trend will no doubt continue as the baby boomers continue to age," the report concluded. It added that Howard "is poised to have one of the most rapidly aging populations" in the state.
Along with that rise in seniors has come a similar rise in services offered by the county, and in participation.
Comparative figures on workshops and programs are not available, but Office on Aging leaders say the numbers have grown at every center.
Participation in the county programs, meanwhile, has jumped 35 percent in the past five years, from 118,000 to 159,000. And while the number of senior centers has remained at seven, some centers have been moved and a few, including the Bain Center in Columbia and centers in Glenwood and North Laurel, have expanded.
As for spending on the senior services, the budget for the county Office on Aging, including county, state and federal money, has increased 58 percent in the past 10 years, soaring from $2 million to $3.2 million.
Dayna Brown, administrator of the county Office on Aging, said her office has three main goals: promoting healthy aging, supporting seniors who want to "age in place" (stay in their community rather than move to a retirement community) and supporting family caregivers.
"Our primary role is to be that trusted resource where people come for information, assistance, referral — for whatever resources we have at our disposal or have the authority to provide," Brown said. "Primarily we want (seniors) to stay in the community as long as possible.
"We also are a resource for people who want to stay active, for lifelong learning, information about Medicare — pretty much everything from aerobics to Zumba, with everything in between is what we hope to be able to provide for people."
Like the 50+EXPO, the aging office's programs have evolved to meet the changing needs of seniors.
"People are living longer and working longer, so it's a much more active adult population," Brown said. "A 60-year-old now is not what a 60-year-old may have been 30 years ago. People are much more physically active into their 70s and 80s."
As a result, she said, "the programs in the senior centers have evolved. It's not just bingo and arts and crafts. It's Zumba, it's computer classes. It's so many things."
More services to come
One of the office's newer offerings is the Korean language class at Longwood Center. Part of the aging office's "Living Well" program of six-week classes designed to help seniors manage their own health, the Korean class was expected to draw eight to 12 participants. It attracted 27 the first day, according to coordinator Wendy Farthing.
"It's had an enormous response," said Farthing, who was hired earlier this year to run the Living Well program. "The enthusiasm for this is huge."
An even newer aging office innovation, Cycle2Health, has developed a similar following.
Cycle2Health is a volunteer-led series of weekly bike rides — when the weather permits — that range from 12 miles to 55 miles, that began in May. The rides are open to anyone, but are led by seniors and designed for seniors. Rides are low-key, held during the daylight hours on weekdays and have a heavy emphasis on safety.
An average of 22 bikers are showing up for the weekly rides, according to organizers
"We saw a need for this, for people who wanted to ride for exercise, not for competition," said Saul Zuckman, 73, of Columbia, one of the organizers. "And I think the response has validated that.
"It's a little bit social, a little bit physical. It's turned out to be a lot of camaraderie, and the faster riders have no problem working with the slower riders," Zuckman added.
"It's going great," added another organizer, 68-year-old Jose Luis Puchol-Salva, of Ellicott City. "We never expected to come up to speed so quickly. … We wanted to promote health for seniors, and some can't jog or do other exercising, but they can ride a bike."
Administrator Brown sees more growth and evolution in the aging office's future.
She said the county has set aside $300,000 to come up with a master plan for senior services for the next 10 or 20 years. A consultant is now being sought, she said, and the plan should be drafted by the end of next year.
"I think there's going to be a lot that's different," Brown said. "If I think about me 20 years from now, when I'm in my 70s. Am I going to go to a senior center? Maybe, maybe not.
"It may be that we're going to evolve to look at programming in virtual ways, in centers without walls, so to speak. So we can work with people in ways that may not involve me getting in my car and driving over to the Bain Center. It might be that I'm plugging in somewhere to take advantage of whatever we have to offer."
Although the future of the county's services for seniors is cloudy, Brown is sure of one thing: "There's going to be a lot of evolving in whatever we have to offer."