When Betty Keohokalole decided to learn Spanish, she signed up for a rigorous class at a community college. The retired Apple Valley resident found it too fast paced, so she looked elsewhere.

“I wanted to learn something at my own pace — I wanted it to be enjoyable,” she said. “And going back to school was not enjoyable. I had already been to college, already got my degree, so it wasn’t necessary for me to do it that way.”

Her search led her to the Lakeville Senior Center, where she takes a less formal class with about six other seniors, ages 50 to 90, and learns from a native Spanish speaker — Dolores Attias, who has lived in Cuba and Spain.

Keohokalole is one of the center’s close to 1,000 members, 150 of whom are active. As Lakeville prepares for an increase in retired adults from the baby boomer generation, the center aims to offer a larger variety of programming to meet demands of a generation that is more active and expects more opportunities.

The center moved to a larger space in October, at the new Heritage Center, where leaders say seniors finally have adequate space and there’s room for more. It’s a place that’s home to more than 200 programs each month — like Zumba and pickleball, bus tours and overseas trips, and workshops on how to get legal help or stay healthy. Keohokalole tried classes in line dancing and yoga when the center took its new home.

Center leaders added education in technology and computers when the center relocated. Seniors can also join clubs such as a motorcycle club and diner’s club. The center is open to non-Lakeville residents as well.

“It’s a more defined space,” said Brett Altergott, Lakeville’s director of parks and recreation, which oversees the senior center. “Before, if you wanted to have multiple programs, it’d be like being in corners.”

Linda Walter, the senior center’s coordinator for the past 18 years, has seen it evolve.

The first senior group in the community got together at homes and played cards. Then St. John’s Lutheran Church gave them space in their parish. Later, the city parks and recreation director at the time, Steve Michaud, asked them if they wanted to “join forces,” Walter said.

At first, the group focused on social activities. “A lot of them were farmers, and they enjoyed the social aspects,” Walter said. “Now, people are expanding, and they want more things. Seniors are more service-oriented, they’re more into health and educational things. With all this technology, they didn’t have that in schools, so they need to go somewhere for that.”

Keohokalole agrees, saying in her mother and father’s days, those who retired expected to do more things around the house. And with retirement or the loss of a spouse, seniors have a new perspective on the importance of social connections.

Some who use the senior center hadn’t had many social activities outside of work, but now seek a place to go in the mornings as motivation to get out of bed.

“Socializing — I think for everyone, it’s the key to avoid loneliness and depression,” Keohokalole said.

Senior stigma

The word “senior” may not accurately describe the members of the center, Walter said. She caters to those as young as 50, some of whom are still working.

Lakeville’s center and others across the nation want people to know they are for “mature adults,” she said. “A lot of the younger generation [in their 50s] doesn’t want to come into a building that has ‘senior’ attached to it — they don’t want that stigma,” Walter said.

Lakeville is not alone in its efforts to recruit a younger crowd of baby boomers on the rim of retirement. Senior centers across the state and nation are adapting to the new generation.

Walter makes changes and adds programming as she gets feedback from members — the Spanish class, for example, was one suggested by a member. “I think actually, a lot of people are really surprised at what all is offered at the senior center,” Walter said. “This place is an eye opener to people.”

By 2050, the population of Americans age 65 and older will increase 120 percent — from 40 million to 88 million, according to a report by The Center for Housing Policy, a national organization.

“Baby boomers are about to swell the ranks of older Americans,” the report states. One in five Americans will be 65 or older. “The [Lakeville] senior center is going to grow,” Altergott said. “Population is going to dictate that. Where we go depends on our flexibility and how we’re willing to change with it.”

The city’s current “Envision Lakeville” process, coming up with a long-term vision of what Lakeville will be in the next 25 years, is expected to focus heavily on the aging population. “I think we’re going to get some answers out of there,” Altergott said.

Cost struggles

The $1.1 million Heritage Center is also home to the Lakeville Historical Society and the Lakeville Yellow Ribbon program that helps returning veterans. The building was transformed from the old police station. Officials were tasked with raising about $260,000 to pay for the new space. They have yet to raise about $131,000, according to Altergott.

With increased utility and operational costs at the building, the three organizations will host five annual fundraising events, specifically for those bills. The city hopes that the center is self-sustaining, but with affordable class fees and membership costs. Classes start at 50 cents, and day trips go up to $64. Members pay $18 per year. Membership is also open to non-Lakeville residents at $30 per year.

The financial aspect is a challenge, Altergott said. “We hope to break even,” he said. “It’s probably our toughest thing. In any program, what you’re after is discretionary income. And as people retire, they go to a fixed income.”

Many members feel the cost is worth it, Walter said. “They’re getting the programs that they’re asking for,” she said. “And they all get along so well, there’s no cliques, and I think that is an accomplishment in itself.”

She added with a smile, “I have three people who come out here and wait at 6 o’clock in the morning until we open up at 8. Because they’ve bonded.”