NOTHING about Mather’s-More Than a Cafe looks as if it’s aimed at people over 50. But the Chicago cafe, which could easily be mistaken for a large Starbucks, is much more than that, serving as a community hub, mostly for older people, with dozens of classes on topics like flower arranging, Egyptian history and digital safety.
In her six years as a member, Pat Knazze, 66, has taken line dancing and piano lessons and participated in over 50 seminars via Skype, including architecture classes that helped her qualify as a neighborhood docent.
As she ages, Ms. Knazze has also found another expected benefit: a caring group of neighbors who serve as a kind of substitute family.
“We’re social beings,” said Ms. Knazze, who is divorced. “And the cafe is a kind and loving group. I have multiple families that nurture me.” The Mather’s Cafe manager even attended Ms. Knazze’s mother’s funeral.
To appeal to baby boomers like Ms. Knazze, many community senior centers are getting up-to-date makeovers. There are about 11,500 senior centers in the United States, according to the National Council on Aging. They are increasingly offering everything from top-flight gyms to speed-dating sessions, wine tastings and Apple support groups.
Many are also shedding their names so that they can evolve beyond being seen as just places to play bingo. The senior center in Rochester, Minn., has become 125 Live, which just opened in a sleek, modernistic building with a teaching kitchen, big lap pool, pottery studio and a gym. Another in Minnesota is now Lakeville Heritage Center; it has yoga, Pilates and Zumba classes — and a motorcycle club.
“We have to move away from hot meals and bingo,” says Jim Firman, the chief executive of the National Council on Aging. “So there’s a lot of exciting innovation going on. The laggards will catch up or go away.”
Mather’s three Chicago cafes helped kick-start the transformation in 2000. They were inspired by Robert Putnam’s best-selling book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” He talked about how people’s health and happiness were declining along with a sense of community, said Mary Leary, chief executive of the Evanston, Ill.–based nonprofit Mather LifeWays.
“So the cafes were conceived as a way to connect with others,” said Ms. Leary. “And it all starts with a cup of coffee.” Indeed, a bottomless cup of coffee costs only 95 cents at Mather’s Cafe, which also offers breakfast and lunch.
Mather’s Cafes take a holistic approach to aging, she said. Classes, aimed at adults 50 and older, include wellness, lifelong learning, fitness and entertainment. There are also telephone topics programs, such as chair yoga or eating well, for people who can’t attend. Innovative classes are devoted to edgier subjects like sexual identity and virtual reality. Fees are donation-only.
“We see aging on a spectrum,” Ms. Leary said. “Let’s help people stay active so they can age in place and connect with others.”
To spread its message, Mather’s holds workshops for other organizations. So far, people from 138 cities have attended and more than 40 other cafes have popped up, Ms. Leary said.
Like Mather’s Cafes, many senior centers are usually funded privately or by communities, so fees are typically nominal.
More a luxury club than a senior center, The Summit in Grand Prairie, Tex., charges $55 a year for adult residents 65 and older. The sunny 60,000-square-foot building has perks like an infinity edge pool, underwater treadmill and a hot tub. There is also a 100-seat movie theater, banquet rooms with full kitchens and an outdoor cafe with a grill.
“This is really an active adult facility,” said Amanda Alms, general manager of The Summit. “The city wanted to create a facility that was unlike any other.” Members have benefited by becoming more fit, finding artistic niches and making lifelong friends, she said.
For Wilfred Sanchez, 69, The Summit has become his home away from home. A Vietnam veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange, Mr. Sanchez has post-traumatic stress disorder and nerve diseases. So he uses The Summit’s pool for exercises like running laps or the underwater treadmill.
“PTSD makes me not want to go anyplace,” said Mr. Sanchez, who is also a retired information technology instructor. “But I don’t let it stop me.” Mr. Sanchez and his wife also visit the center to go to the movies, eat lunch and socialize with other veterans. “I’m so thankful,” he said.
Mr. Firman of the National Council on Aging says his goal is to transform the typical senior center into more of a longevity hub.
“There’s an evolution going on and a revolution as baby boomers age,” Mr. Firman said. “So we’re developing richer programming. We’re given the gift of longevity, so we have to spend it wisely.”
Many people are overwhelmed by the challenges of living longer, Mr. Firman said. “Health is complicated,” he said. “Finances are complicated. And there’s no playbook.”
The Senior Center in Charlottesville, Va., now includes a lifelong learning program on how to design a good life. The center also offers lots of ways to socialize, including singles gatherings, travel partner matches and three bands that members can join. There are also fitness classes, hiking programs and pickleball.
Peter Thompson, the center’s executive director, lamented the word “senior” in the name, though. “It’s a barrier,” Mr. Thompson said. “People don’t want to acknowledge that that’s them.”
The goal, he added, is creating centers that help people feel ageless. So a new center including features like a mind-body studio aimed at active adults is being planned.
Hansie Haier, 65, goes to the senior center often to socialize. She takes line dancing, yoga and tai chi. Ms. Haier, who is single, also teaches a weekly writing group there.
“The center helped me find my purpose,” said Ms. Haier, a retired psychiatric nurse who now writes short stories. “I’m constantly learning new ways of living. A good center helps keep the brain functioning. That’s really important.”
Isolation is a potential risk for millions of aging adults, said Shannon Guzman, a senior policy research analyst at the AARP Public Policy Institute. But new forms of social engagement are emerging in the digital world. Selfhelp Community Services’ Virtual Senior Center in New York helps homebound older adults keep in touch via computer: They can attend group museum tours, Shakespeare discussions or even take laughter yoga.
“We’re building an online community,” said David Dring, executive director of Selfhelp Innovations. “Seniors can create these cyberclassrooms.” They can also create ongoing virtual friendships.
Ms. Knazze says she feels deeply fulfilled and cared for at Mather’s Cafe. “Now,” she said, “I want to share that with others.”