How we age now: Missoula's Senior Center considers a change of course



At the Missoula Senior Center, 11:40 a.m. is the height of the lunch rush. About two dozen people line up to pay a few bucks at the register and go through the lunch line. One woman holds her hands behind her back, clutching a free meal voucher from Missoula Aging Services. Executive Director Michelle Hastings greets almost everyone by name. "Hi Jan," she says to one woman. To another: "How's your back treating you?"

On any given day, the senior center hosts meals, pinochle games, AARP driving courses, exercise classes and dances. But membership has been dwindling quickly, from 1,200 in 2010 to about 400 today. Hastings says that as the Greatest Generation ages out of the senior center, baby boomers aren't signing up to replace them.

"Baby boomers have a different outlook, they have different activities," Hastings says. "Boomers are out there bike riding and skiing, a lot of them are still working, raising kids, raising grandkids."

Or, as Missoula Aging Services CEO Susan Kohler puts it, "Baby boomers don't want to go into a senior center."

Kohler says that across the country, intergenerational community centers are filling the role of senior centers. As an extreme example, she points to the sleek Salvation Army Kroc Center in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The 12-acre complex includes a golf course, climbing wall, pools, day camps and a church. Kroc Center advertisements for gleaming gymnasiums full of smiling, activewear-clad families are a far cry from the low-key Missoula Senior Center, where quilts adorn the avocado-colored walls and an amateur banjo player plucks away on the stage while people finish their lunch.

Last summer, the senior center's board of directors determined they had about two years of operating funds left. On April 18, the center's membership voted 66–62 to sell the building and find a new location. Hastings says she believes they have ample time to find a new location, and agrees with Kohler that some kind of multigenerational complex with more activities would keep an active membership engaged.

A few years ago, Missoula Parks and Recreation pitched the idea of partnering with the Senior Center on a new facility next to Currents Aquatics Center. Parks and Rec Director Donna Gaukler describes the proposal as a "multi-generational, fully accessible community center in which we can collaboratively host special events, wellness, cultural and educational programs, daily healthy lunches, and more."

But, she says, no funding has been identified for such a project. Hastings says the most obvious source would be a voter-approved bond, but she doesn't think a new bond would pass in the wake of the pricey park, schools and library bonds that have been approved in recent years. Nevertheless, Hastings is trying to be optimistic.

"These things take time," she says. "But I'm very excited about opportunities that we can more clearly develop as we progress."


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