Beating the Social Stigmas of Aging

January 1, 2015, Department, by Guillermina Gina Núñez-Mchiri, Ph.D., and David Lopez

This El Paso Senior Games participant  proves that exercise and wellness can be a priority at any age.For the past 32 years, the Senior Games have been taking place in El Paso, Texas, hosted by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. In 2014, the Senior Games offered 15 sports seniors could compete in, including swimming, basketball, volleyball, pickleball, tennis, racquetball, golf, a road race, cycling, and track and field. During the past three years, the city has partnered with the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to connect university students with senior athletes. As students learn through service, they are also challenging the stereotypes of aging. Senior athletes become prime examples of how to live longer, healthier lives though physical activity, fun and friendship. The Senior Games bring out the competitive spirit in senior athletes and inspire younger generations to adopt healthier habits and exercise in their daily lives.

David Lopez has organized the Senior Games in the past four years and directs El Paso’s 10 senior centers for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Lopez notes that several years ago, the Senior Games were beginning to wane in popularity in the city and throughout Texas, so he is working to combat that as well as some other big challenges. The flagging participation rates, which had a lot to do with the scant promotion of the events, meant few people in the city knew about the Senior Games. Another issue affecting participation rates has to do with the name of the competition. The word “senior” seems to be charged with stereotypes and stigmas associated with aging in our culture. Who determines who is a senior? Is it the Census, AARP or restaurants that offer senior discounts? 

Lopez considered the social stigmas associated with being a “senior.” While athletes are eligible to participate in the Senior Games beginning in their 50s, many people at that age do not see themselves as seniors yet and feel that word is for people who are much older, despite the fact that those in their 50s are more likely to be able to compete in many of the events and to be able to start healthy habits now, before health problems prevent them from doing so. Senior athletes in their 70s and 80s seem to be more comfortable with aging, particularly as they have found exercise to be a key strategy to healthy living. The word “senior” has a lot of meanings; however, those who embrace the opportunity to compete in physical fitness competitions seem to recognize the key role physical activity plays in an active and healthy lifestyle. 

To address the senior spectrum, El Paso’s Parks and Recreation Department staff has worked on introducing new events to the Senior Games. They understand that not every senior will be able to participate in every event, but someone who does not feel up to participating in track and field events may be perfectly at ease in table tennis, horseshoes, washer toss, race walk or bowling. By offering a wide variety of events, the city hopes to attract seniors of all ages and ability levels. Lopez also counts on another factor to address the low participation rates and lack of publicity: the participants themselves. These seniors are great examples for other seniors who may not yet be convinced that they are up to running a 100-yard dash. Although many seniors might not see themselves as ready to compete, they can become motivated to take a few steps toward becoming more active by visiting the city’s senior centers and participating in a variety of events, including dances, Zumba, tai chi, walking and low-impact aerobic exercises. 

The partnership with UTEP has boosted the visibility of the Senior Games in El Paso. As students attend the events, they serve not only as volunteers, who are able to help set up and monitor the games, but also as cheerleaders and as physical activity ambassadors for the athletes and the local community. In the past two years, students have organized “Pack the Bleachers” efforts to bring students to the track and field competition. They spread the word throughout the college campus and in local high schools, and they invite their peers to show up with motivational signs. Poster parties were held on the college walkways, inviting students to send their positive messages to the senior athletes. On the day of the event, students play a big role, as score/time keepers, safety patrol personnel, and water, fruit and sunscreen distributors to spectators and participants alike.

Through a grant funded by State Farm, a group of students have formed a Youth Advisory Board at UTEP to bring volunteers and spectators to the Senior Game events. This grant is helping to create a bridge across the generations and is closing the gap that separates older adults from young adults in El Paso. Students at UTEP who sought this grant are reaching out to high-school students to involve them in physical fitness by sharing health tips and information through health modules, and inviting students to develop their own service learning projects to involve their peers in physical activities. With the rising obesity and diabetes rates in our nation and particularly in this community, the Senior Games athletes are held as great examples of what getting active and healthy can do to improve the quality of life as you age. By emphasizing service and learning, the city’s Park and Recreation Senior Games have served as a space for both community service and for learning from great exemplars. Students have learned to put these lessons to work by becoming more physically active and motivating others to do so as well.  

The 2014 El Paso Senior Games wrapped in May, and Lopez and his staff are already planning for the 2015 events and dreaming up ways to make them even more successful. Lopez hopes to get a social media intern to help him promote the Games in the future, and with so many capable students looking to help, he is sure to find one. The university students are currently looking for more high-school students interested in participating in service learning. In the meantime, the participants at the 2014 Senior Games are grateful for the support of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, and for the students’ enthusiastic support and encouragement. During times in which many cities are seeing cuts to these sort of programs, El Paso is ready for this challenge.

Guillermina Gina Núñez-Mchiri, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso. David Lopez is the Senior Division Coordinator for El Paso Parks and Recreation.