As baby boomers age, changes ahead for Downtown Senior Center

Theresa Reiter visits the Downtown Senior Center at least once a week. She enjoys book clubs, takes classes on everything from diabetes education to smart phone use and is able to continue being a lifelong learner.

As a baby boomer, she’s seen that her generation wants different things than the generation before them. Even as they age, baby boomers want to travel, climb mountains and continue working.

Now, the Downtown Senior Center – one of four centers run by the nonprofit Senior Services of Wichita – is prepping itself to cater to an influx of baby boomers. The center at 200 S. Walnut St. near Douglas and Seneca currently offers activities like pickle ball and educational classes, includes the Meals on Wheels kitchen and houses Senior Services administration. The project will more than double the center’s capacity and create a modernized Meals on Wheels kitchen, office space and event center.

Reiter, 61, says the additional classrooms, updated façade and new amenities will make the center she already enjoys “cozier, homier.”

“I feel important when I’m there,” Reiter said. “You feel like a family. You’re family.”

The project renovating and rebuilding the Downtown Senior Center, including the Meals on Wheels portion of the buildings, will cost $6 million. Half of the money has been raised, including an initial gift from the Dwane and Velma Wallace Foundation. The project is expected to take around 10 months.

Changing needs

“Baby boomers are going to be a different animal than the current generation we serve,” said Laurel Alkire, executive director of Senior Services of Wichita.

One change will be the sheer number of seniors. Ten thousand baby boomers will turn 65 every day until 2020, according to the Pew Research Center.

The first of the baby boomers, often defined as the generation born between 1946 and 1964, began receiving Social Security in 2008.

The percentage of Sedgwick County’s population that is seniors is already climbing. A community needs assessment conducted by United Way and the Sedgwick County Health Department found that between 2000-13 the number of Sedgwick County residents age 55 or older increased by 23,497 people, about 25 percent.

The Kansas population over age 65 is expected to double from 2014-2064, according to the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

Currently, the Downtown Senior Center has about 1,500 members each year and can hold about 300 people in the building at any given time. After the renovation, the building will be able to hold up to 700 at a time.

The center is currently comprised of two buildings.The former church building – built in the 1940s – will be demolished, with a new building constructed in its place. Currently, a walkway leads from the recreation building to the church. The walkway, which leaks when it rains and freezes in winter, will be demolished and the new building will connect to the recreation center, making one larger building.

A new reception area will provide space for people to wait or fill out resumes during Tuesday “job club.” Currently, about 40 people line up in the hallways for the club because of lack of space.

While Reiter is retired, her husband says he plans to keep on working. Many baby boomers want to work longer, making the employment program even more important, Reiter said.

The renovation will also feature a café with wi-fi.

“You go to any coffee shop or restaurant, you see baby boomers pulling out cell phones, tablets, laptops,” Reiter said. “Who doesn’t go anywhere without their phone, right? Sometimes people use their phone for everything. It is their laptop, their everything. That wi-fi is going to be wonderful.”

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Senior Services of Wichita executive director Laurel Alkire talks about the renovations going on at the downtown senior center.

Fernando Salazar The Wichita Eagle

Meals on Wheels

The current Meals on Wheels kitchen is cramped: not much counter space, little storage and a shared entrance with the clients of the Senior Center. When trucks make deliveries, they block the entrance that seniors use.

Ron Yarrow, who has volunteered for more than three years, says he doesn’t mind the cramped space, but that the new facility will likely make things more efficient with more options.

That assessment is correct: After a new kitchen is built, Meals on Wheels will be able to serve up to 3,000 meals each day – compared to the current 1,000.

Volunteers will get their own entrance and the program will be able to buy more products in bulk.

It will also allow the program to experiment with choice, Alkire said. They may be able to offer specialized diets for medical conditions, perhaps a vegetarian meal, or a choice between macaroni and cheese and sriracha chicken. Staff in senior services like to joke that baby boomers will want “salads and lattes” instead of the current meals like meat and potatoes.

“People are still going to age, they’re still going to have situations that prevent them from preparing their own meals or prevent them from moving, keep them homebound,” Alkire said. “Programs like Meals on Wheels are one thing that keeps people at home.”

Yarrow, a senior himself, said Meals on Wheels is especially important because he gets to develop relationships with the seniors as he drops off their meals.

“It’s kind of like family. Most of them want to chat a bit, which I enjoy doing, and everybody has a different personality,” Yarrow said. “I hope I can bless them in some way, just help them deal with, relieve some of the pressures they have in life.”

An outdated building

Not only will the renovation help the Downtown Senior Center prepare for the baby boomers, but it also will bring much-needed changes to an outdated building.

In the past three years, more than $150,000 has been spent on basic repairs and renovations, said Chris Heiman, development director.

In 2011-12 the ground shifted, causing cracks to form in the church building.

“It’s just been kind of a nickel and dime situation for us for the last few years,” Heiman said.

The second floor of the recreation center will become offices, meaning seniors won’t have to climb the stairs.

Previously, the building was an educational center, including restrooms built for children with small toilets and short stall doors. The only handicap bathrooms were on the second floor.

More classrooms and an extra event space will be added, and the exterior of the building will be modernized with brick and large windows to fit the Delano aesthetic.

“It’s going to be so much more inviting, interesting,” Alkire said. “I’m very excited. I can’t wait.”

To donate to the renovation campaign, visit www.seniorservicesofwichita.org or call 316-267-0302.

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