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San Jose Mercury News (CA)
September 23, 2003
Section: Local
Edition: Morning Final
Page: 1B

JUST HOW OLD IS A SENIOR?
CENTER IN MENLO PARK REACHES OUT TO MIDDLE-AGED, YOUNGER
KELLIE SCHMITT, Mercury News

Decked out in a green tank top, 21-year-old Emily Nahas seductively gyrates her hips, jingling the bells on her white hip scarf to the Arabic music.

My, what has the local senior center come to?
At Little House, a senior center in Menlo Park, it's come to this: The center is reaching out to bring the middle-aged and younger into the mix in an effort to dispel the perception of seniors as merely Jell-O-eating, bingo-playing geriatrics and to make the center -- and its seniors -- more connected to the larger community.

The effort at Little House reflects an emerging national movement in which younger members are being enticed, one by one, with more physical programs, later hours, younger companions, volunteer groups that get them into the senior center groove, and more.

At Little House Activity Center, which removed the word ''senior'' from its name in July, there is a new roster of classes, including yoga and pilates, as well as massages and a series of evening arts lectures on exhibits at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or the Asain Art Museum.

And, yes, belly-dancing.

Nahas, who is a student at Stanford, is a regular, though she figures her classmates may tease her if they knew the truth -- the whole truth.

''I would probably say I was at my belly-dancing class,'' Nahas said, when asked how she would respond to classmates asking where she goes on Monday nights. ''I don't think I would say it had anything to do with a senior center.''

Still, there she was, shaking her hips along with 70-year-old Harry Sherman Jr. -- dressed in black spandex tank top, shorts and, yes, bell-jingling, flowing blue scarf.

Sherman says the presence of younger dancers doesn't bother him a bit.

'I'm the old guy'

''The only surprise for me is that I'm the only guy in the class,'' Sherman said. ''I'm the intimidating one because I'm the old guy.''

Around the Bay Area, other centers are taking note. The Mountain View and Fremont senior centers are designing new facilities with future needs in mind. The Mountain View Senior Center will include extra room for more classes, and the Fremont center, slated to be built in four years, will emphasize more active programs and include an exercise room and a coffee shop.

In San Jose, the Office on Aging, which runs more than a dozen centers, is adopting changes on a case-by-case basis. For example, they've dropped the agerequirement for a senior track and field tournament in November to 40. All of its centers have a senior advisory council, which evaluates the needs of current and potential users.

While Little House may be leading the Bay Area, ''they aren't the first ones that have done this, but they're in the first group,'' said Ron Aday, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University who testified at a Senate hearing in May on the impact retiring baby boomers will have on the nation. ''It's happening community by community and it's coming from just about everywhere.''

Aday's 2003 study of California senior centers found the average age of members was 76. The recent changes are an attempt to lower that number, giving centers more of a multi-use feel -- and hooking the future client base, now.

Baby boomers, who are now 39 to 57 years old, will represent a quarter of the state's population by 2010, according to statistics compiled by California's Department of Aging. The SUV-driving generation's spending clout isn't lost on senior centers in an era of dwindling public budgets. And its sheer size can't be ignored.

''Many of us who qualify as seniors don't see ourselves as seniors,'' said Janice Pierce, 59, the director of Little House. ''Everyone knows the baby-boomer bubble is coming and we know that's where we have to gear programs.''

Having even younger folks around, like Nahas, is a boon. New members don't have to feel ''old'' enough to go to a senior center when they're belly-dancing with college students.

Little House also is staying open later, sometimes until 9 p.m., to attract people who haven't retired. Many baby boomers are retiring later in life, underscoring the need for non-workday class times.

Beyond activities, some centers are luring baby boomers and younger with opportunities as volunteers. Spending four hours a week helping shuttle seniors to and from doctors appointments helps serve the elderly and acclimate the volunteers, who might become members themselves soon.

Constance Todd, executive director of the National Institute of Senior Centers, has visited senior centers across the country and noticed ''exciting developments'' as facilities freshen their approaches to entice younger people.

She's seen a center with its own volunteer cable station and another with an 80-person orchestra.

Still, there are diverging viewpoints on the best way to handle what appears to be an inevitable shift. And there are concerns that the needs of older seniors may be ignored in the process.

Seniors at Little House say they recognize the need to bring in younger folks, but the newer, fast-paced classes can be daunting.

Only watching

''I think it's fun, but it's a little too much for me,'' said Elaine Altorfer, 79, who was sitting on a folding chair at the side of the room, watching the belly-dancers.

But she also likes the infusion of youth.

''It would be nice to have more younger people around here,'' she said. ''They'd be a little more lively.''

At Little House, the center strives for a balance. It's reaching out to younger members, but retaining traditional programs. The center has plenty of older folks playing cards in the hallway or eating low-sodium meals of glazed carrots and meatloaf in the cafeteria. There's still an ample supply of dominoes and decaf coffee, bridge and bingo nights.

But on Monday evenings, the bright, beige-carpeted exercise room is filled with dancers in their 20s, their 80s, and everywhere in between.

They shake their hips, jingle their bells, laugh and talk -- each interaction chipping away at the perception of the old senior center and helping reshape a new one.


Illustration:Photos (3)

PHOTO: ANNE-MARIE MCREYNOLDS -- MERCURY NEWS
Dance instructor Hala Fauzi, foreground, of Hala Dance in Santa Clara, works on hip movements with Betty Meyer, 73, of San Mateo at the Little House Activity Center in Menlo Park.
PHOTO: ANNE-MARIE MCREYNOLDS -- MERCURY NEWS
Instructor Hala Fauzi whirls with dance class participants Betty Meyer, 73, and Harry Sherman Jr., 70, during an evening Middle Eastern Dance class at Little House center in Menlo Park. The class is part of an effort by senior centers around the nation to move beyond age stereotypes.
PHOTO: ANNE-MARIE MCREYNOLDS -- MERCURY NEWS
Harry Sherman Jr., 70, waves his arms during a Middle Eastern Dance class conducted by Hala Fauzi.


Copyright (c) 2003 San Jose Mercury News