Connie Thompson, coordinator of Fridley’s Senior Center for the past 34 years, turned 60 in August. That makes her older than some of the seniors she serves.
“I am finally eligible for the programs that I run,” she quipped.
Like many senior coordinators, Thompson has been adding more active programs for several years in an effort to attract retiring baby boomers, many of whom don’t consider themselves senior citizens.
Thompson, who is one of those boomers, attended a Chicago conference on aging in 2010. “I thought about my own aging and whether I would want to be in our programs,” which included the card games, meals and field trips commonly offered at senior centers.
“I felt it was not exactly what I wanted.”
So, while recognizing the value of the more traditional activities and keeping them, she added Encore, tailored for people ages 50 to 70. Because many boomers are still employed or are active volunteer workers well into their 60s, she scheduled early evening events for them with a light dinner and speakers or social activities. After doing a senior survey and talking to younger seniors, Thompson added more hiking and physically active classes, short-term community service options and adventure travel trips and speakers.
Many boomers are physically active and see retirement as “an opportunity to follow their passions. … It is not the end but the next stage in life,” she said.
The Encore activities, including a jazz musician and wine and cheese tasting, attracted an average of 24 seniors. Many of them wouldn’t have the time or interest to attend day activities at the Senior Center, Thompson said.
The center has many multiuse rooms on two floors in a 15-year-old wing of the Fridley Community Center, at 6085 Seventh St. It is just west of Fridley High School, where seniors enjoy dinner and theater nights.
Serving all groups
Once the boomers see the senior center and learn about volunteering options, social events and home chore-help programs, their stereotypes of the center being a quasi-nursing home dissolve, Thompson said.
“Once I get them in the door, I got them hooked,” she said with a grin. Thompson said she uses a dual approach, with day activities for older folks and evening events for younger seniors.
“I wanted to make sure the younger seniors are aware of all our services and assistance for older adults, for themselves and their parents, if they are caregivers,” Thompson said. “Our mission is to keep people independent … and having an active lifestyle as long as they can. But once that wanes, we can provide the services for them to transition into a quieter lifestyle.”
The Fridley center serves from 50 to 250 seniors a day and about 1,500 seniors a year, Thompson said.
In 2010, 19.5 percent of Fridley’s 27,208 residents were over age 60, according to the U.S. Census. Fridley and Anoka County, like the rest of the seven-county metro area, will continue to see the senior population grow in coming decades, said Bob Anderson, program and service director at the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging,
Boomers in demand
Every senior center is trying to attract boomers, said Steve Pieh, manager of Minnetonka’s senior center, who has worked with seniors for 30 years.
“More recent retirees are more interested in group biking, pickle ball or softball; physical outdoor things,” Pieh said.
He said boomers like one-time classes on health and other topics, and line dancing or Zumba Gold, a vigorous dance-like exercise that is gaining popularity with younger seniors across the country.
Thompson, of Fridley, is well respected among her peers and won the Outstanding Senior Services Award in 2008 from the Minnesota Association of Senior Services, a professional group of senior service providers. “Connie is a great team player,” said Michele Starkey, former association president. “Her seniors are crazy about her.”
Last week the center was alive with seniors playing cards, taking yoga classes and volunteering to serve lunch to other seniors. They like Thompson’s enthusiasm and willingness to try new activities, including some they suggest.
“She is irreplaceable,” said Muriel Lombard, 77, sitting in a room of 500 card players on a Tuesday morning. “She is the most caring and helpful and able.”
“She always comes up with something new and interesting for us,” said Caryl Weaver, 77, after her gentle-stretch yoga class last week.
Thompson’s boss, Parks and Recreation Director Jack Kirk, has known her for 40 years, since they both majored in park and recreation administration at the University of Minnesota.
Kirk said Thompson’s Encore events attract 60-somethings who like to socialize with their peers, but wouldn’t sign up for a “senior” program. “A name can make a difference,” he said.
Kirk said Thompson is a dedicated, creative coordinator always looking for ways to improve. He said she also suggests ideas for other programs, like youth activities, the area where she started working with the city 34 years ago while spending 10 hours a week on senior programs. She became a full-time senior coordinator in 1987, and now earns about $72,000 a year. She has two part-time assistants, paid with federal grants for senior programs.
Thompson said she loves her job and has no immediate plans to retire. But maybe by age 64, because “I have a grandson in Wisconsin.”