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Silver haired and seeking adventure: As Eden Prairie's senior population grows, Senior Center looks to the future

In the halls of Eden Prairie’s Senior Center, age truly is just a number.

When Renee Rahimi, 61, began leading fitness classes there seven years ago, she couldn’t even guess at the age of most of the participants. The Silver Sneakers classes she runs — zumba, yoga and cardio — are close siblings of those at a mainstream gym, with a few adjustments to minimize jumping.

“They’re very dedicated,” Rahimi said of the classes’ attendees.

Jim Harvey runs the Senior Center wood shop’s safety trainings and has driven one of its shuttles part time since 2012. He’s been going to the senior center since 2008 and has seen the demand for active and hands-on events grow substantially, he said.

“What’s a senior? Somebody that’s retired? Somebody that’s over 55?” Harvey asked. “The 70s are the new 50s.”

In 2008, there were around 8,000 visits to the center at 8950 Eden Prairie Road. By 2018, that had increased to 32,000, said Sue Bohnsack, supervisor of the Senior Center. The city’s 2040 plan predicts that Eden Prairie’s population of adults age 65 and older will grow by 34 percent by 2021 — from around 7,000 to over 9,500 — compared to a predicted 7 percent increase in adults ages 25 to 44.

Jay Lotthammer is the city’s director of Parks and Recreation, which includes the Senior Center in its facilities. He and Bohnsack are in the early stages of drafting a master plan to guide the department and its facilities for the next 10-15 years, he told Eden Prairie News, and it’s shaping up to be an expansive project. Lotthammer predicted that staff will work on the plan for the rest of 2019 before it’s ready for public comment. It’s more in depth than the previous plan, created in 2003, which he called an “inventory” of the spaces and resources available to the department. This plan will consider programming at the Senior Center and Community Center as well, he explained.

“One drives the other, or one gives opportunity for the other,” he said. “We’re trying to look across the whole city.”

With its pickleball courts and Senior Center outdoor adventures, Eden Prairie is on the cutting edge of engaging its aging population, and Lotthammer wants to stay there as community trends shift.

“We’re really getting much more demand for active, older adults than we have before,” he said. “We can be that conduit for them to continue to be active.”

For her part, Bohnsack said she’s working to create a community space that’s in tune with what its visitors want and breaking the “rocking chairs and bingo” idea of what a Senior Center is. The situation she wants to avoid is creating an event without visitor input and having nobody show up, she said. After all, creating community is what it’s all about.

“It’s as social as much as the exercise aspect of it,” Rahimi said of the seniors who attend her workouts. “I’ve seen the connections between people.”

Social cliques don’t matter as much when high school is 50 years ago, Harvey added, which makes socializing smoother than in other circumstances.

“Everybody understands that we’re all in the swimming pool together,” he said.

That includes looking out for each other’s names in the visitor log. When a regular visitor doesn’t make an appearance for several weeks, their friends will ask Bohnsack if she knows the reason for the absence, she said (and while she generally tries not to pry in visitors’ personal affairs, she’ll ask around about a lapsed visitor).

Activities like wood working and zip lining — both Senior Center offerings — “get the juices flowing to learn more and do more,” Harvey added. Without that stimulation, retirement can be a bit anticlimactic, he said.

“They go, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’” he said. “Every day is Saturday, except when the fat paper comes, and that’s Sunday.”

Rahimi and Harvey credit the Senior Center’s success in engaging the community to Bohnsack’s leadership.

“Sue is really good a soliciting ideas from people,” Harvey said. “This is not her Senior Center, this is the community’s Senior Center.”

One visible marker of the Senior Center’s plethora of programs is its mailers. Bohnsack is part of the Minnesota Association for Senior Services, which convenes at yearly meetings for members to exchange strategies and feedback, and she compared many other senior centers’ four- or five-page newsletters to Eden Prairie’s 19-page booklet that goes out every month. That’s not including the added events for May’s Senior Month, which will feature events like Car Fit and Shred It, which help seniors practice safe driving and dispose of sensitive documents. The events regularly draw over 200 participants.

Popularity comes with a price, however: The two-story building has already begun to feel a bit cramped. Harvey noted that during peak hours, it can be a struggle to work around eight or nine people using the wood shop, and spots on field trips fill up so quickly that Bohnsack has to add a bus or turn people away.

“There are only so many seats on a bus,” she said.