When Barbara Scher tried a yoga class in the old fitness room at Ellicott City's 50+ Center, she and her classmates didn't have much space in which to stretch.
Cramped in the narrow room, "we were like sardines," Scher, the manager of the 50+ centers division of Howard County's Office on Aging, recalled.
"That small room was filled with classes from the time we opened in the morning, through the afternoon," said Cindy Saathoff, director of the Ellicott City 50+ Center.
Now, with the construction of a brand-new fitness center for seniors next to the Miller Branch library, future classes will have much more wiggle room.
Though it's been open for use since this spring, officials will formally inaugurate the gym, as well as the renovated 50+ center next door, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday. The unveiling is scheduled for 11 a.m.
The fitness center, intended for Howard County residents ages 50 and older, is the first of its kind in the county, according to Kim Henry, a spokeswoman for the Office on Aging. Because older adults tend to have extra physical challenges – arthritis, for example, or back pain – that make working out more complicated, the gym has a health specialist on staff who can offer individualized advice — the kinds of "little accommodations that make things more comfortable and will help [gym-goers] stick with it," Henry said.
"It's a nice challenge to be able to help the population that's moving well at 50 as well as moving well at 80," she added.
The new fitness center is part of a push to expand resources for older adults countywide.
Howard County's senior population, in line with national trends, is projected to grow significantly in the next decade. The number of Americans aged 65 and older is expected to more than double by 2025, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A survey of 1,200 Howard County adults ages 45 and older, released late last year, revealed residents want to stay in the community as they grow older. One way to improve the quality of life for older adults, the survey found, is to revamp local senior centers.
Part of improving senior centers is encouraging eligible adults to use them, officials say. Currently, only about 10 percent of the senior population uses the centers, though that number is growing, according to Scher.
Some of the problem might be with the terminology itself: for survey respondents, "senior center" conjured up adjectives such as "old" and "boring." To try to combat that stigma, the Office on Aging is moving to rebrand senior centers as "50+ centers."
Getting more residents through the door of the centers could help expand the reach of county services geared toward older adults, according to Scher.
"One of the first places people access the Office on Aging" is at a 50+ center, she said. "Centers are focal points in our community. They're the recognizable spot whether you want to take classes, you're a caregiver, etc."
At the 50+ fitness center in Ellicott City, classes include yoga, aerobics and Zumba. The new exercise room has a stage for instructors and space for about 40 people per class. Next door, a room full of fitness machines includes nine pieces of cardio equipment mounted with personal TV monitors.
The 7,500-square-foot building also has a spacious lobby, offices for Office on Aging employees and a classroom, which plays host to chronic disease self-management programs, game nights and a Howard Community College class on Pablo Picasso's art, among other offerings.
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A second side of the fitness building, constructed on the site of the old Miller branch library, houses the Howard County Library System's administrative branch offices.
Across the parking lot, the existing 50+ Center has some new features. The renovation, completed in July, included soundproofing in the lobby, new carpeting, flooring and furniture in many of the rooms, a dishwasher for the kitchen, a new projector, expanded bathrooms and a more open floor plan, among other improvements.
The fitness center cost the county about $1.9 million to build, and renovations to the 50+ center were an additional $517,000, according to the county's budget office.
Combined, Ellicott City's fitness and 50+ centers see about 300 people per day, on average, according to Saathoff.
As both centers get some public attention with the grand opening, Scher said she and her staff hope to see that number grow.
"It's just getting the word out and letting people know that this is a great resource," she said.
"It's nice to have a new building, but what's really important is what goes on within these walls."