There’s a national movement in play to improve the quality of life for older residents. Increasingly, cities throughout the state and across the country are opening senior centers, spaces that advance a healthy, active lifestyle.
Wausau so far has been behind the curve, at least until now. A new nonprofit group aims to break ground this year on The Connections Place, a 24,000-square-foot facility just off I-39 in Rib Mountain.
“The day you retire, you retire to a whole new life,” says Jean Burgener, president of The Connections Place board of directors and a retired Aspirus executive. “How do we as a community make available the resources seniors need to stay active and engaged? That’s the question we hope to address with this facility.”
The mission of The Connections Place is to encourage people age 55 and older to engage in community activities and with each other.
The need is clear. As 10,000 baby boomers across the U.S. turn 65 each day, America’s demographics are rapidly changing. The nation’s senior population is expected to double in the next decade, while the total population will grow by just 34%, according to census data. More than 22,000 adults over age 65 live in Marathon County alone.
Kathryn Lawler, a national spokeswoman for the AARP, says providing more recreational services to seniors is essential to their well-being.
The Connections Place would fill that need through a three-pronged approach, incorporating education, exercise and entertainment in its programming. Classes in technology, art, crafts, cooking, foreign language are examples of just a handful of the programs planned when the facility open its doors. The club also will feature a fitness gym, line dancing, yoga, Tai Chi, weight lifting and other exercise opportunities. Entertainment choices could include a travel club, coffee clutch, ping pong, pot luck dinners and other activities. There are no plans to install a pool, but aquatic services would be provided off-site, Burgener says.
Recognized by the Older Americans Act as a community focal point, senior centers are some of the most widely used services among older adults. Nationwide, nearly 12,000 senior centers serve more than 1 million older adults each day, according to the National Council on Aging. The Council says 75% of participants nationwide visit a senior center up to three times a week, spending an average three hours per visit.
Burgener says a senior center is crucial to the well-being of adults who often find themselves isolated after retirement. Prolonged isolation and loneliness erode well-being and have a measurable physical effect—one similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the AARP Foundation.
“Isolation is one of the greatest risks seniors face,” Burgener says. “We’re trying to build those social connections we all need through The Connections Place.”
Compared with their peers, senior center participants are healthier, with higher levels of social interaction and life satisfaction. Research by the NCA shows that those who participate in such programs can better manage and delay chronic disease, while reporting measurable improvements in their emotional and physical well-being.
Similarly, a 2008 Commonwealth of Pennsylvania-funded study found strong ties between senior centers and a reduced risk of depression and cognitive decline. Both studies concluded that successful aging is more likely when seniors are actively engaged.
“Senior centers are one of the most accessible, friendly and inexpensive places that offer programs and services that promote active engagement and enjoyment of life by older adults,” the 2008 study reads.
The proposed facility would likely be located next to the Rib Mountain Municipal Center on CTH NN. The location is perfect because it is easily accessed from both the Hwy. 29 and I-39 corridors, making it more feasible for people from all of Marathon County to reach. To combat transportation issues with no feasible bus system in the area, the organization is working to create a ride share program to ensure members without access to a vehicle are able to participate.
For years, seniors have been informally using a wing of North Central Health Care, with a range of programs that were “unofficially” supervised by the Aging and Disability Resource Center. Those activities nearly came to a halt last year when the ADRC, a largely grant-funded agency that serves Marathon and three surrounding counties, in December moved their offices to a new, smaller space across town. After several months of uncertainty, leaders at NCHC devised a workable plan to keep senior services largely intact at the facility, but only through 2017. The future of the space beyond this year, along with the programs being held there, is still unclear.
Feasibility studies conducted in 2015 and 2016 by the Wisconsin Institute of Public Policy and Service on the UWMC campus show broad support for the proposed facility, especially among those age 55 and older. The $4.5 million project is largely contingent on support from local foundations, however, and stakeholders are asking the organization to show strong public interest before making a final commitment.
Now, The Connections Place is selling advance memberships to satisfy that requirement. A three-month advance membership is $50 for one person or $75 for a couple, with longer memberships available. Membership fees will be used to pay operational costs, including salaries for an estimated 4.5 full-time employees.
Official numbers are not yet available, but Burgener says interest has so far been strong.
“We believe in this project,” Burgener says. “Marathon County needs this to happen.”
For membership information, visit theconnectionsplace.org or call 715-297-5521.