Senior center prepares for new year
Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 7:39 p.m.
Inside the city of Gainesville/Alachua County Senior Recreation Center, a mural of faceless seniors stretches across a wall.
The elderly people depicted in the painting are shown quilting and doing Zumba — just a couple of the activities they can participate in at the facility.
The mural, created by people who use the center and University of Florida art students, left the painted folks faceless because you're supposed to imagine yourself as a senior when you look at it, said Anthony Clarizio, the director of ElderCare of Alachua County who oversees the center.
Sometimes, people forget seniors are constantly dealing with loss, Clarizio said. From losing family members to losing friends, their social network is always eroding.
"This is an opportunity to build that social network," he said. "Social networking is just critical to longevity."
The senior center, located at 5701 NW 34th St. in Gainesville, opened its doors in September 2011. The $5.5 million, 17,000-square-foot facility offers a variety of free activities ranging from dancing to yoga for seniors age 60 and over throughout the county.
Before it opened, Alachua County didn't have a senior center. Clarizio said he hoped to get 1,000 members enrolled in its first year. It currently has about 3,200 people who use the facility regularly each month, and most come at least weekly.
At first, the center offered only a few programs. Now, its calendar is "slammed" with more than 50 of them. The top-attended class: Zumba, which brings in 85 to 100 people each time. Monthly dances attract about 150 participants.
Sixty-one-year-old Suzie Crowley, who started coming to the center right after it opened, said she does yoga there once or twice a week. She tells everyone about it.
"There's so much everything. Anything you want to do," she said. "I think it's awesome, and I love taking advantage of it."
Heading into the new year, the facility is preparing to launch a couple new activities and is aiming at diversifying its programs, Clarizio said.
"I think the goal for us right now is really to tweak programs to make sure we haven't left something out the seniors really want," he said.
It will start offering bingo this month and also will launch a history of music class.
Clarizio said he wants to provide more activities aimed at men as well, such as a wood-carving class the center is starting.
It's probably a 75/25 split right now between female and male visitors, he said. The people who use the center are split pretty evenly between those with higher and lower incomes. A customer survey showed about half of respondents have less than $30,000 in annual income and half have more than $30,000.
The senior center has several rooms where classes are held, a computer lab where people can learn everything from how to turn one on to how to use Facebook, and a game room with pool and ping-pong tables.
Two things Clarizio heard seniors ask for help with soon after the center opened were how to create email accounts so their families could send them messages and how to use the e-readers they got as presents from their kids.
The facility's fitness center, which costs users about $65 a year, is the only thing seniors must pay to use and has machines with removable seats designed to accommodate people who use wheelchairs.
A large, multi-purpose room is used for center functions and is rented out to groups for events in the evenings and on weekends since the facility is open on weekdays during typical business hours. The revenue helps support the center, which is funded through donations.
The center is still dependent on private funds, especially since the bulk of donations won't come from fixed-income seniors, Clarizio said. ElderCare operates out of the center to save money.
Clarizio said he's worried the looming fiscal cliff could hurt donations, but overall the center is doing "very well" in a struggling economy.
The facility's hours make it hard for working seniors to use it, but funding longer hours would be difficult — especially given its reliance on the rental money it receives for use of its multi-purpose room.
Another goal Clarizio has for the center is to improve seniors' transportation options. There is a Regional Transit System bus stop at the facility, but the bus isn't widely used by the people who come to the center, he said. Most either drive or are driven there.
Clarizio said he would like to set up a system that could help more seniors reach the center — especially those who live farther away. The system might involve working with local churches that could shuttle seniors there and back.
For seniors who haven't visited the center yet, Clarizio invites them to at least check out the programs the center offers. He said he thinks they'll be impressed by their caliber.
"It's not your typical community center," he said. "And we've made it as noninstitutional as possible."
Lynn Tebbe, 77, who recently moved to Gainesville, said the facility offers healthy activities such as yoga for seniors to try.
"We need cause and purpose," she said. "This gives you that, gives you someplace to go."
Morgan Watkins is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.
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