Senior centers and the silver tsunami

The Connections Place is no longer in the works… for now


Work continues on the YMCA expansion in downtown Wausau, which includes The Landing, the area’s first dedicated senior center. Plans have been put on hold for The Connections Place senior center in Rib Mountain.

Plans for a senior center in Rib Mountain were quietly scrapped last fall after news broke about the $40 million expansion at the YMCA downtown that would include a dedicated senior center and attached Aspirus clinic. Although organizers of The Connections Place in Rib Mountain had raised over $2 million toward the roughly $4 million senior center, and had already received nearly 200 advanced memberships, it didn’t seem likely the area could sustain two competing senior centers, says Ken Day, who handled The Connections Place’s marketing and communications, and advocated for the center.

At least, not yet.

Although plans for The Connections Place are on hold, it’s not totally gone, Day says. That’s because of demographic realities. The senior population in Marathon County—and across the U.S.—is expected to rise. A demographic bulge fueled by the Baby Boomer generation born in the wake of World War II, that population boost has been steadily reaching retirement age.

That means an increased demand for services for seniors as that age group becomes a larger part of the population. Multiple sources have made it pretty clear that the senior population is on the rise and will continue to do so in the near future. Consider:

• According to the 2017-2019 Marathon County Life Report, the median age in the county has risen from 36.3 to 40.9 from 2000 to 2015.

• According to a Department of Administration report, the population of seniors in the county is projected to grow between 20% and 25% between 2010 and 2040. The total population during that time should only grow 14%.

• According to the department of Health Services, the population 65 and older right now in Marathon County is about 15-18% of the population. That’s projected to be 21-24% by 2030.

That’s a whole lot of seniors—several thousand more in Marathon County alone—and local services are responding.

County leaders, for example, kept that in mind as they made decisions on whether or not to build a new warm water therapy pool (they decided yes, build it), and on renovating the county nursing home, Mount View Care Center (which also got an OK) as well as the entire North Central Health Care campus where those facilities are located.

While the NCHC campus will focus on specialty services, including dementia care, geriatric psychiatry, and a new therapy pool, Mount View Care Center is working on aiming toward a senior population trend to “age in place,” says Nursing Home Operations Executive Kim Gochanour. In other words, the organization is positioning itself to increase the specialty care services it provides while anticipating a diminished need for long-term care.

The silver tsunami played heavily into the planning of the YMCA’s latest expansion, under construction now in downtown Wausau, says Woodson YMCA CEO Bryan Bailey. The dedicated 15,000-square foot senior center, called The Landing, is part of the first phase of construction.

Even before that, an eye on demographics led to the hiring in 2016 of an active older adult director, Becky Zelent. Under Zelent’s direction, the YMCA introduced programming focused on three areas: education and technology, exercise and health, and socialization and entertainment, Bailey says. Those programs cover everything from Tech Friday, to living with chronic disease, to learning to play pickleball.

All those programs will have a new home at The Landing, Bailey says. Seniors will be able to buy a social membership if they don’t want a full Y membership. The second level of the facility, open to those with full membership, will include senior-only gym facilities including a three-lane walking area.

Bailey says the YMCA will be sure to work with other groups for possible collaboration to make sure there are as many activities as possible for seniors.

The focus on seniors makes sense. Seniors have been the YMCA’s strongest growing population for the past two years, Bailey says, and that growth is expected to increase as the YMCA opens The Landing this summer.

With The Connections Place’s decision to not move forward at this time, all of the advanced membership fees collected from nearly 200 people were returned last year.

The YMCA’s expansion drew critical foundation support, Day says, putting the Rib Mountain senior center out of reach. The board decided to officially halt plans for the center in October, says The Connections Place Board President Jean Burgener.

But not for good. With the numbers of seniors continuing to rise in Marathon County, and armed with roughly 1,000 respondents from a Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service survey who mostly said they didn’t want a facility located downtown, The Connections Place organizers believe there could come a time in the near future when there is a need for two facilities.

In the meantime, Day says, the development of The Connections Place helped send the message to the community that dedicated senior-based facilities are needed in the area. “In time if there is a need for another facility, then there is some good groundwork laid here,” Day says.

The important thing is that the number of activities for seniors continues to increase in Marathon County, Burgener says.

“The real dream, the most positive thing is to grow Wausau and the greater Marathon County into a mecca for activities for seniors,” Burgener says. She points to data from the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging that showed seniors live 7.5 years longer when they’re active, and mentioned social activities and volunteering as part of that too.

“I want Wausau to be a mecca for seniors to be involved and get that extra 7.5 years of life,” Burgener says.