On any given day you can find them all across Howard County, wielding Tai Chi swords, doing yoga and line-dancing up a storm.
They are the county's baby boomers, and each year more and more of them are retiring in place, eschewing moves to easy-living hubs like Florida or Arizona, and instead arriving at the county's various senior centers with requests for new, decidedly active programming.
In the last decade, Howard County's population of 65-and-older residents has grown significantly as a percentage of the overall population, climbing from 7.5 percent in 2000 to 10.2 percent in 2009, according to recent census data. The raw numbers are even more dramatic, with the number of residents 65 and older soaring from 18,468 to 29,045.
That growth is in line with what is being seen at the state and national levels, where the 65-and-older population, in the same period, went from 11.3 percent to 12.2 percent and from 12.4 percent to 13 percent, respectively, according to census data.
It is a surge that has grabbed the attention of county officials and local senior center administrators, who are tasked with reacting to the associated social, economic and civic implications. According to Sue Vaeth, administrator of the county's Office on Aging, she and others in her office are currently preparing for a "strategic planning process" that, in the next year, will assess those implications and plot a path forward.
"We do want to make sure that we are well-positioned to provide the services that are needed in the community, especially with this new cohort of boomers," Vaeth said. "It behooves us to do this planning and to make sure what we are providing is what is going to help them stay healthy and stay in place."
Changes have already been realized at local senior centers, where administrators said they are dealing with an influx of seniors, both younger and older than 65, who have little interest in bingo but are eager for exercise, mental stimulation and other programming that allows them to maintain the active lifestyles of their younger years.
"We're not your grandmother's senior center anymore. We don't do bingo and things like that. We do Tai Chi, we do belly dancing," said Meridy McCague, director of the East Columbia 50+ Senior Center. "We try to focus on programs that enhance life, enhance balance and keep the mind nimble."
"That's why I'm here, so I could play with swords," said David Evans, 64, of Columbia, who on a recent Thursday afternoon was participating in a Tai Chi practice at the East Columbia center with five other members, who ranged in age from 56 to 74.
Laid off from his job last year, Evans said the center has given him opportunities not only to meet friends, but to meet people his age who, like him, continue to be active.
"Not having work companions, it's nice to have other people with common interests," he said, Tai Chi sword in hand.
Senior growth no surprise
According to Vaeth, she and others in her office long expected there would be "phenomenal growth" in the number of seniors they serve with the influx of baby boomers, who raised their families in the county and are now either still working or have retired in place.
"We knew that Howard County was going to [be] one of the faster growing counties for people over 60," Vaeth said. "And knowing that people want to stay in their homes and their own communities is kind of a main focus of ours, on how to help people do that."
In that effort, Vaeth's office is not alone. Because the growth of the county's senior population has long been forecast, other services aimed at helping seniors remain independent have cropped up in recent years as well.
One example is the non-profit Neighbor Ride, which was established in 2004 and offers seniors inexpensive transportation to medical appointments, religious services and other destinations. Today, the organization is busier than ever. It provided 11,402 trips in its 2011 fiscal year, which ended June 30 — a 44 percent increase over 2010, according to Executive Director Brad Closs.
Aside from its new strategic planning process, Vaeth's office is also busy, and with a variety of initiatives.
One is the office's Opting for Independence Program, which helps seniors with home modifications and other lifestyle changes that ease the hardships of living alone, Vaeth said. Another is a new drive to provide more detailed information on resources to care-givers and those with disabilities, a focus in line with evolving federal standards for disseminating such information.
A third approach is making local senior centers more attractive to seniors of all ages, a goal that has been taken up by center directors across the county. The directors say diversification of programming has really caught on in the last few years.
"We constantly are trying to offer new programming to attract different people," said Carla Buehler, director of the Ellicott City Senior Center. "Do people still want to come and play bridge? Yeah. And we have bingo twice a month. But that's not what the majority of people are interested in anymore."
Buehler said her center offers 17 different exercise courses each week, from fast-pacedyoga and Zumba classes to low-impact courses designed specifically for people who have had strokes or who have painful arthritis. That is up from just five exercise courses a week in 2007, Buehler said.
The center also offers a plethora of other courses, events and groups.
"I think this is a very active community because a lot of people have decided to stay here," said Joyce Thompson, 64, of Columbia, who was at the center with her painting group on a recent weekday. "The dream of moving to Florida isn't there."
"It's great, but I think they ought to change the name of the centers, because I wasn't attracted to the word 'senior,' " said Claudia Dailey, 68, of Columbia, also of the painting group.
The perception that senior centers aren't places for the active and young-at-heart remains a challenge, center directors said. But it's being overturned as the centers reinvent themselves.
"Most people at 60 say, 'I'm not a senior,' but when they learn they can take a fitness class? Whoa," Buehler said. "That's the pathway into the senior center."
A shift in thinking
According to Judah Ronch, dean of the Erickson School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which focuses on the study of aging and aging services, there has been a clear shift in what it means to be a senior today compared to a generation ago.
"We know that people who are 65 now are much younger than people who were 65 forty years ago," Ronch said. "The whole idea of, 'What is a senior?' is undergoing a major change, and that's based on the experience of people as they age.
"As the boomers start to age, or come into that 65 age group, they don't see themselves as aging at all. To them, being 65 is not that much different than being 55, so a lot of the categories we have used in the past are becoming obsolete."
At 59, David Chu, of Ellicott City, certainly seemed to be defying categories as he deftly maneuvered around the East Columbia center, Tai Chi sword in hand.
Originally from Taiwan, Chu said he jumped at the chance to join the Tai Chi class about a year ago, when his wife, Rachel Chu, 56, suggested the idea.
Now, Chu said, he expects to work on perfecting the nuanced martial art moves — which require a considerable amount of strength and balance — for years to come.
"You feel much better, muscle strength is better, you don't feel so tired," he said.
That sort of enjoyment of healthy activity is exactly what county officials are going for, they said.
"Everything we do is really aimed there," said Vaeth. "To help people stay as independent as possible for as long as possible."
Luckily, the baby boomers are up for it.