Senior recreation priorities

Facilities: The county takes a hard look at providing for the over-60 population, which will double in the next two decades.

Howard At Play

August 04, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Howard County's increasing number of residents 60 or older constitutes a demographic that many might consider as not playful enough to warrant closer attention from both public and private providers of recreation.

But that's not so, says the county's Commission on Aging, which is about to start lobbying politicians and anyone trying for public office locally this fall about more and better recreational facilities geared for senior citizens.

"Recreation for seniors over the next 20 or so years is going to be big business," says Michael K. Davis, an Ellicott City lawyer and chairman of the 12-member advisory commission.

"This county has 23,000 or 24,000 residents 60 and over now. But in the next 20 years, that's going to grow to more than 70,000 while other age groups stay about the level we have now - and most of them will be healthy seniors."

Commission member Margaret Dedeian-Smith, of Ellicott City, puts it another way: "By 2020, there will be as many seniors in the county as there will be children of school age."

The commission is reformulating what it calls its "Gold Book," a broad-based research and position paper on seniors' needs named for the color of its cover. The finished product - an update of a document created in 1999 - will be ready for distribution next month.

Davis says copies will go to every policy-maker involved in country government, as well as all candidates for office. It will also be available to the private sector, which Davis says could have the largest role in providing new facilities and services.

"All the major players need to be part of this," Davis says, noting that next month marks the start of the next local government budgeting cycle as well as serious campaigning for November's election.

That private sector involvement in Howard County includes the huge Columbia Association, which also has its own advisory committee on seniors' needs and began paying more deliberate attention to older citizens five years ago.

It has a full-time coordinator for seniors' activities and what it calls its WINN program (When, If Not Now?) aimed at older members who haven't regularly exercised.

"We have offerings at all of our facilities geared to seniors," says Rob Goldman, vice president of the association's sports and fitness division. He points out that Columbia, especially, reflects something of a double hit when it comes to the proportion of its population crossing 50 years old.

"We see the national growth, with baby boomers now in their 50s, as well as the fact that Columbia was settled pretty much by couples in their 20s and 30s," Goldman said.

Such couples are now reaching senior-citizen status, and Goldman sees no change in that dynamic.

In fact, he said, the association recently got back a marketing study that showed 78 percent of Columbians 60 and older intend to stay in Columbia after retirement.

The Commission on Aging's Gold Book touches on a variety of seniors issues, ranging from financial matters to health and mental health services, transportation and housing.

Dedeian-Smith, a retired Department of Recreation and Parks employee, is overseeing the new Gold Book segment relating to recreational needs.

To those who might not think of recreational needs as relevant for seniors, she says, "It's a very diverse group, with those in their 50s and 60s having needs quite different from those 70 and older."

Among new issues being included in the Gold Book, she says, is the need for "passive kinds of recreation, such as trails, picnic groves" in parks, especially as the county decides how to use Blandair, the sizable, former Smith farm flanking Route 175 in Columbia.

She also calls "grossly inadequate" the county gymnasium space now available for seniors.

She notes a seniors volleyball program that could find only daytime space - when public school gyms are in use by students - at Ellicott City's National Guard Armory. Other indoor uses range from dance to sports to aerobics.

Seniors, she says, benefit from recreation facilities for the same reasons everyone does, ranging from maintaining strength and physical fitness to mental health and socialization.

The county's recreation department, she points out, has no gym space and only limited indoor space for meetings, although some space is being planned for a new senior center-library branch to be built in Glenwood. That facility, not scheduled to open for several years, recently got planning money from the Robey administration.

An active indoor program for seniors operates in a small building at Ellicott City's Kiwanis-Wallas Park, but without gym space.

The county has tried to cater more to seniors at, for example, the Owen Brown branch of the county library in Columbia, Dedeian-Smith says, adding:

"But space like that is too small. The one in Elkridge was too small in the first year it opened."

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