With an exciting variety of activities just for seniors, including exercise and art courses, Gainesville’s residents can’t wait to turn 60.
BY SAMANTHA DEAN
As the Zumba Gold class was about the start, about 100 seniors flocked toward the Multi-Purpose Room.
Music could be heard thumping from the room as seniors crowded the hallway, waiting to enter.
The dance-style exercise class, sponsored by the Alachua County CHOICES Health Services program, is just one of about 35 weekly programs at Gainesville’s Senior Recreation Center, but it is definitely the most popular, said Anthony Clarizio, director of the center.
The center opened its doors almost two years ago. To date, Clarizio said it has enrolled more than 4,000 active members.
The mission of the Senior Center is to help seniors in the Gainesville area “partake in health education, preventative screenings, physical fitness activities, arts and cultural activities, nutritional services, social and volunteer opportunities and so much more,” according to its website.
These efforts are met through the weekly programs — like Zumba Gold — offered at the center.
Zumba Gold takes the popular Latin-dance inspired workout of Zumba and makes it accessible for seniors needing modifications in their exercise routine. Zumba Gold builds cardiovascular health by challenging the heart and working the muscles of the hips, legs and arms with dance moves, according to the Livestrong Foundation.
But there is so much more to the class than just the physical aspect.
“It’s wonderful,” said Carol Rhine, a member of the center. “It’s a great way to get exercise and to meet people.”
Rhine, who has been a member of the Senior Recreation Center since November, attends Zumba Gold twice a week.
“I couldn’t go before then because you have to be 60,” she said. “I had gone in a few months before with a friend and tried to sign up, but I had to wait for November when I turned 60.”
Now, Rhine is usually at the center four days a week, whether in Zumba Gold or yoga classes.
“It’s a great place for the older seniors, particularly for exercise and socializing,” she said. “A lot of seniors don’t get out to social places, so they get to get out and meet other seniors. It’s just fantastic.”
After registering herself, Rhine convinced her brother and his wife to become members. She also takes her mother, who is 86, to the center.
“I take her to a chair yoga class, which is great exercise for ladies or men that can’t do regular yoga,” she said. “Then, while I go to yoga on Friday, she’ll go and play bingo.”
Seniors are given the opportunity to really connect with other members in the center.
“If you’re not there for a couple of days, you walk into the class and everyone will say, ‘We’re so glad to see you back!’” Rhine said.
It is this social interaction that makes the center so beneficial to seniors, added Clarizio.
“Seniors are oftentimes dealing with loss — a friend, a spouse, a family member. As you deal with loss at that level every day, you want to shut down, you get depressed and stay in the house, isolated,” he said. “Here, seniors are out of the house, in a new circle of friends, up and moving around. We always like to say: stimulate body, stimulate mind, stimulate spirit. It’s about reconnecting to the world. I just think that’s so important.”
Clarizio’s efforts to constantly keep seniors connected are especially necessary in Gainesville. According to ElderCare of Alachua County, an agency dedicated to providing services for seniors, there are more than 38,000 people aged 60 or older in the county, and it is estimated that 25 percent of seniors live alone.
This is one of the reasons the Senior Recreation Center offers such a wide variety of activities.
“We want to make sure we’re meeting the needs of groups of seniors,” he said. “We want to make sure people see the center is there for everybody.”
Aside from Zumba Gold and yoga, the center offers art classes, book clubs, quilting clubs, leisure activities and education seminars.
Clarizio took over as director of ElderCare about eight years ago. Right away, he said, there were talks about creating some sort of recreation center for seniors in the community. The biggest hurdle, he said, was finding funding.
“Right after I took over, the governor’s office set aside money to build and refurbish existing centers. When the money was released, we were able to secure $2.5 million from that round of funding,” he said.
He said they then received $3 million from the Wild Spaces & Public Places half-cent sales tax. From there, it was just a matter of getting seniors to register. Clarizio initially hoped for 1,000 members in the first year. The actual number — four times that — showed just how much the Senior Recreation Center meant to seniors in the community.
Clarizio recalled one senior who asked him when the center would begin renting rooms. Confused at first, he responded that plenty of groups rent rooms for meetings and events. “No,” she responded. “When are you going to start renting rooms to sleep? Because I come here every day.”
It is this type of interaction, Clarizio said, that makes the Senior Recreation Center so vital to seniors in the Gainesville community.
“It’s a good outlet for seniors,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to utilize.”
But the Senior Recreation Center is just one of the many senior-centered organizations in Gainesville.
Those interested in furthering their education should also focus in on the Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR).
Based in Oak Hammock at the University of Florida, the ILR provides classes for seniors taught by UF professors.
“We’re a lifelong learning institute, open to the Gainesville community,” said Sara Lynn McCrea, director of community service affairs — or “dean of residents,” as she’s affectionately titled.
About 15 courses are offered each semester, and there are usually about six seniors enrolled in each. Membership is open to all North Central Florida residents 55 or older.
Classes are usually lecture-style, but some have a roundtable discussion structure. McCrea said they recently offered a course on Renaissance Culture taught by six UF professors, who each taught one class in the course. One of the classes, for instance, focused on 15th-century art and printing, and another, she said, discussed the three crowns of Italian literature.
There are also science and technology courses, humanitarian courses, classes about Islamic culture, and there is also a focus on elder law courses.
McCrea said that there is a curriculum committee, which she is a member of, that meets to discuss how classes should be structured.
The ILR first started in 2001, before Oak Hammock even opened, and now has more than 550 seniors enrolled in the program.
Much like a typical college schedule, the ILR follows a semester-based year. Fall semester runs from October into November, and the winter session is held January through February and the spring semester goes from mid-March through April.
Membership is $25 annually or $40 for couples. Each six-week course is $10. The summer semester, which begins July 9 and features a lighter schedule, is free for everyone, McCrea said.
One relaxed, fun class available is an ongoing opera class in which enrolled seniors watch DVDs of great operas. There are about 40 people in that class.
Much like Clarizio’s sentiments toward the Senor Recreation Center, McCrea said programs like the ILR are so important for seniors because it keeps them occupied and in touch.
“It gives a lot of seniors purpose to keep learning and enriches their lifestyle,” she said. “They just seem to really be excited about it. They start with one course, and the next semester, they sign up for five courses. It keeps them active and their mind going.”
Regardless of the activity or hobby, it is undeniable that Gainesville’s seniors are proactively embracing their retirement and post-retirement years.