Are Your Seniors Moving to Center Stage?

November 30, 2013, Feature, by John L. Crompton

As America’s senior population grows, park and recreation agencies need to consider new lifestyle and financial factors to best serve this demographicMost recreation and park agencies have traditionally served seniors, but in many communities, the numbers involved have been small when compared to those participating in activities such as youth sports, adult sports and aquatics. However, the future viability of agencies is likely to be influenced by their ability to respond to change, such as the emerging trend in which seniors are moving from being a relatively small fringe group to being a large central focus of their services.

A glimpse of the future was offered in the March 2011 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine in an article that featured The Summit, the 50,000-square-foot, $23 million facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, developed for those over 50. The city viewed it as a “new generation facility” and as “the first baby boomer facility in America.” There, seniors can work out in the aquatic area, gyms, weight rooms, or on the jogging/walking track; participate in the art and dance studios; go to a movie in the theater; and then have a beer or glass of wine. It has been an extraordinary success with more than 5,000 active members. Residents pay an annual fee of either $206 (ages 50–64) or $56 (age 65 and over), while the fees for nonresidents are $506 and $206, respectively. The center has quickly become a magnet for development around it and a social focus in the community.

Obviously, seniors’ increasing numbers lead to an enhanced demand for services. In 2011, there were 41.4 million U.S. citizens aged 65 or older. They accounted for 13.3 percent of the U.S. population. The number is projected to increase dramatically to 56 million by 2020 and to 50 million by 2040, at which time they will comprise 21 percent of the population. However, there are five other evolving changes in the status of seniors that suggest recreation and park departments should be following Grand Prairie’s lead in moving them to the center of their service efforts: extension of active retirement time, enhanced discretionary income, contributions to economic development, enhanced leisure literacy and disproportionate political influence.


Table 1: Life Expectancy at Age 65 and Age at Exit from the Labor Force (Medians)
  Age at Exit from the Labor Force Life Expectancy at 65
  Males Females Males Females
Early 1950s 66.9 67.6 77.8 80.1
2011 61.6 60.5 82.8 85.4
Change 5.3 7.1 5.0 5.3


 Extension of the Active Retirement Time

Table 1 shows that seniors now exit the labor force many years before they did in the past and that their life expectancy is substantially greater. The result of these trends is that over the past 60 years, the median average duration of retirement essentially doubled from 10.9 to 21.2 years for men and from 12.5 to 24.9 years for women. The lengthening retirement period means that increasingly large time blocks are available for leisure pursuits, which has obvious implications for recreation and park agencies.

Enhanced Discretionary Income

The increasing time blocks reported in Table 1 have been accompanied by remarkable changes in seniors’ financial status. Their financial transformation has been one of this country’s great national achievements in the past half century. The federal government’s traditional poverty measure reports that in 2012, 15 percent of U.S. citizens lived in poverty, but this dropped to 9.1 percent among those older than 65. In 1959, when the federal government first published this measure, 35.2 percent of seniors were below it. Seniors’ income comes from four main sources: Social Security (37 percent), earnings (30 percent), private pensions (18 percent), and assets such as interest, dividends and rents (11 percent). While interest income has declined during the past six years, the other three sources have continued to grow, and in each case that growth is widely projected to continue.


Table 2: Median Income of Households 1980–2011 in 2011-Adjusted Dollars
Age of Head of Household 1980 1990 2000 2011 % Change 1980–2011 Mean Size of Household in 2011 Per-Capita Income in 2011
15–24 33,033 30,031 36,370 30,460 8% 2.82 10,801
25–34 50,252 50,644 58,007 50,774 1% 2.85 17,815
35–44 61,400 64,327 70,216 61,916 1% 3.35 18,482
45–54 65,283 63,934 75,283 63,861 -2% 2.81 22,726
55–64 50,798 53,991 58,580 55,937 10% 2.18 26,659
65 and over 22,940 28,117 30,149 33,118 45%  -
65–74  - 33,851 36,767 41,598   - 1.91 21,779
75 and over  - 21,997 24,572 26,277  - 1.60 16,423
National average  -  - 50,854  - 2.55 19,943

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Table H-10. Age of Head of Household by Median and Mean Income, All Races


Table 2 reports the income growth of age cohorts over the past three decades in 2011-adjusted dollars. It shows that in real-money terms, there was a general trend of consistent increase across all age groups in the 1980–2000 period. In the last decade, that reversed in every age group under 65, but continued to increase in the cohorts over 65. The percentage change over the three-decade period was negative for the 15–24 age group and insignificant for those in the 25–54 age range, but the median real income for those aged 55–64 increased by 10 percent, and among those over 65 it went up by 45 percent.

Despite these dramatic improvements, lobbyists for the elderly frequently note that their household income remains relatively low. For example, in 2011 their median household income of $33,118 was only 65 percent of the $50,864 median of all U.S. households, which was lower than that of all other cohorts except those aged 15–24. However, many argue this is deceptive because, on average, elderly households are much smaller than typical American households. Table 2 shows that when viewed on a per-capita basis, the median income of those in the 65–74 cohort exceeds the national average by 11 percent, while among the over-75 age group it rises to 82 percent of the national average.

Seniors’ costs of living are generally lower than those of nonseniors, which reinforces their income and net asset gains. A large majority have neither child-rearing expenses nor work-related expenses such as commuting costs. More than 80 percent of them are homeowners and most are likely to have paid off their mortgage by age 65, so their accommodation expenses are limited to taxes and maintenance. Furthermore, an increasing number of local jurisdictions have enacted legislation that freezes the property taxes paid by seniors on their homes at the amount paid when they reach age 65. Thus, while the inevitable future year annual increases in tax rates and appraised values (at a minimum to cover higher costs of services caused by inflation) result in all property owners other than seniors paying higher taxes, seniors remain unaffected.

Economic Contributions

In addition to their enhanced income, seniors’ median net assets ($170,516) are 2.5 times the median for the nation ($68,828) and greater than those of any other age group. Their increasing affluence has resulted in many communities viewing GRAMPIES (growing number of retired active monied people in excellent shape) as a new clean growth “industry.” An annual inflow of 100 retired households with $40,000 in annual income would equate to a new $4 million annual payroll in the community.

This income is relatively stable and not subjected to the vicissitudes of economic business cycles; seniors stimulate housing, retail and especially a community’s healthcare industry, but do not put pressure on either the local job market or the school system, and they also provide a volunteer pool.

The key requirements, both for attracting new GRAMPIES and retaining those currently in a community, are ambiance and amenities that facilitate socialization and an active lifestyle. Such activity-friendly neighborhoods are exemplified by attractive landscaped streets, trails and recreation opportunities.

Enhanced Leisure Literacy

A consistent finding from leisure research has been empirical verification of the aphorism, “You are what you were yesterday.” That is, leisure behaviors learned in our youth tend to endure throughout the lifespan. For the most part, people’s leisure interests and skills are established by the time they leave high school or college. Older seniors who reached these milestones before the 1960s generally have limited leisure skills and interests, because there were relatively few opportunities for them to be acquired in their youth.

The level of leisure literacy among baby boomers is much higher, since they were exposed to many more leisure opportunities in their youth. This means that the desire among new seniors for recreation opportunities is much greater than that expected by seniors a decade ago. Communities that fail to recognize this much higher level of leisure literacy or accommodate this greater demand are likely to both lose existing GRAMPIES and fail to attract any newcomer seniors in the community.

Disproportionate Political Influence

“Gray power” is a political reality, and the prognosis is that it will continue to gain in strength. It is a function of the substantial increase in seniors’ numbers, their growing proportion of the total population and their high level of political participation. They have the time to invest in personally lobbying elected officials, and in many government bodies, a preponderance of elected officials are in the same age cohort. This makes it likely that seniors have relatively strong personal networks with these people, and that the officials can fully empathize with their concerns.


Table 3: Percent in each Age Cohort Reporting they Voted in Congressional Elections
  Presidential election years Congressional election years
  1996 2000 2004 2008 2002 2006 2010
Total 54.2 54.7 58.3 58.2 42.3 43.5 41.8
18–20 31.2 28.4 41.0 41.0 15.1 17.1 16.4
21–24 33.4 35.4 42.5 46.6 18.7 21.9 22.0
25–34 43.1 43.7 46.9 48.5 27.1 28.3 26.9
35–44 54.9 55.0 56.9 55.2 40.2 40.1 37.7
45–64 64.4 64.4 66.6 65.0 53.1 54.3 51.1
65 and over 67.0 67.6 68.9 68.1 61.0 60.5 58.9

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Table 399. Voting-Age Population — Reported Registration and Voting by Selected Characteristics: 1996 to 2010.


Table 3 shows that the percentage of seniors who report voting in congressional elections is greater than that of any other age group. In the high-profile presidential election years, those under 35 typically voted at approximately two-thirds the level of those over 45. In nonpresidential election years, the difference is especially prominent. In the 2010 congressional election, the percentage of eligible voters aged 45 and older who voted was nearly double that of those aged 18 to 34.

This latter scenario is reflective of the situation in local elections, where the lack of high-profile campaigns results in disinterest among many younger voters while seniors vote in disproportionately high numbers. Thus, a monitoring organization reported, “In many cities, mayors for example are elected with a single-digit turnout. In recent elections in Dallas, Charlotte and Austin, they were elected by a turnout of five percent, six percent and seven percent, respectively.”

The Senior Discount Issue

The dramatic shift in seniors’ status described here indicates they are likely to be the fastest-growing target market for recreation and park agencies, and central to their future viability. This suggests the tradition of giving price discounts to this group should be reviewed.

Senior discounts became part of the marketing lexicon in the 1950s. They made both commercial sense in the private sector and equity sense in the public sector, because at that time, one-third of all seniors were below the federal poverty level. Today, however, seniors’ standard of living and their economic well-being is better than that of their younger counterparts. The great majority of elderly persons are not poor. The U.S. still has a poverty problem, but it is pervasive across all age groups and is not selectively concentrated among seniors. Hence, the ultimate goal of park and recreation agencies should be to end discounts for adults that are defined by age, and offer them only to those who are economically disadvantaged irrespective of age. To offer price discounts to the nonpoor elderly is unfair to those who are not elderly. It requires the younger generations, regardless of economic status, to reach into their wallets in order that seniors may save money, when there is no economic rationale to support this requirement.

Traditionally, 65 was the age when people were defined as senior citizens. This was the age at which full Social Security payments could be obtained, and for more than half a century it has been used by the Census Bureau to define seniors. This suggests that when the Social Security age for full payment was raised to 66 in 2009, then agencies’ definition of seniors would also be raised, but no such linkage has occurred.

The data in Table 2 show the per-capita median income of $21,779 of those in the 65–74 age cohort is above the national average, while among those 75 and over, it falls to $16,423, which is lower than all other age groups except the 15–24 cohort. This suggests that if senior discounts are to be retained, then the eligibility age should be 75.

While these data suggest the rational decision would be to raise the eligibility age from 65 to 66 or 75, agencies have not done this. Rather, the problem has been exacerbated by many departments reducing the eligibility age. 

Airlines, cable television companies, resorts, movie theaters and other private-sector service providers of leisure services that used to give senior discounts have recognized the changed status of seniors and no longer do so. Those that are still available tend to be relatively small, typically 10 percent, so they meet the expectation from patrons of there being a discount, but only at a minimum level. Further, many businesses (e.g., hotels) do not advertise such discounts and give them only if they are requested. General acceptance by seniors to the private leisure sector’s actions suggests recreation and park departments would have similar success.

Many factors have changed for seniors’ status over the last 50 years, and park and recreation agencies would be wise to revisit their policies to account for these shifts among members of their communities. Otherwise, they risk becoming outdated and imprudent in their customer service and financial practices. Embracing the changing demographics and trends now is the best way to provide for community needs and maintain financially responsible and relevant operations.

John L. Crompton is a University Distinguished Professor for the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University.


Local Parks and Recreation Identified as Critical Ally for Arthritis Intervention Programs

With their ability to reach and serve thousands of people, local park and recreation agencies have been identified as essential partners to help contribute to the prevention and management of arthritis, which affects 50 million Americans. NRPA and the Arthritis Foundation, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have partnered to provide Walk with Ease (WWE) and the Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program (AFEP) in 24 communities across the country. 

Madison School and Community Recreation (MSCR) in Wisconsin recently led a new WWE walking program, where trained staff led 72 participants to help them reduce arthritis pain and increase balance and strength. Participants also received a manual and pedometer. MSCR held free introduction events to kick off the program, and the MSCR FIT2GO Van also provided fun fitness activities. The WWE program session took place from September 23 to November 1. Classes ran three days a week at Tenney Park, Madison Senior Center and Garner Park. The program was held in cooperation with the Madison Senior Center and Madison Parks, and participants were charged $10 per session.

East Las Vegas Community Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, implemented the AFEP in October 2013. To date, the center has had 30 individuals registered with average class sizes of 15 to 20 participants, who have indicated that the program has improved their aerobic fitness, such as allowing them to walk longer without pain, or reducing pain in their joints. In addition, it has provided a routine fitness class and sense of togetherness among the participants. In January, the staff are planning to offer the AFEP program to two other centers in the city.