Boomers are redefining suburbia (again)

Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe
Jackie Casey's dance class draws a crowd at the Newburyport Senior/Community Center.

A half-century ago, the suburbs outside Boston were rushing to build schools to keep up with the baby boomers.

Today, as they enter their retirement years, these boomers present a new set of challenges, particularly as many are choosing to age in the communities they have long called home.

They are redefining suburbia yet again.


“Just because people are aging doesn’t mean they aren’t seeking new experiences,” said Karen Payne-Taylor, who launched the pioneering BoomerVenture initiative at Andover’s senior center. They “want to be respected and challenged, not marginalized.”

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Consider that by 2020, Massachusetts will be home to more people age 60 and older than to those under 20, according to Susan Strate, who heads the Population Estimates Program of the UMass Donahue Institute in Hadley.

If you check out your local Council on Aging’s website, you’ll still find sing-alongs and bingo, but don’t be surprised if its calendar also includes a lecture by a Nobel laureate, women’s self-defense lessons, reflexology, showings of independent and foreign films, or improv theater. Several COAs are trying out senior speed dating, including those in Hingham and Needham, and the Amesbury council gave away condoms one Valentine’s Day to draw attention to the soaring rates of STDs among older adults.

With many boomers still working or taking care of their parents or grandchildren, some senior centers have extended their hours. Starting this month, for example, Needham is offering its Train the Brain program — which exercises both the body and mind — on Monday evenings. Duxbury’s COA recently hosted “Who Are You Calling Old?” — a dinner-theater show featuring Boston’s Urban Improv.

“We are slowly breaking the stereotype,” said Gayle Thieme, head of Wellesley’s COA, acknowledging that the name Council on Aging can put people off.


Thieme’s agency is drawing a broader crowd with lecturers like a Wellesley professor who mentored Hillary Clinton, and recreational activities like pickle ball (think tennis meets badminton meets Ping-Pong). It has revamped traditional services as well, such as tripling attendance at its lunch program by having a local restaurant cater meals. 

Thieme said last week’s voter approval of funding a stand-alone senior center in Wellesley will enable the COA to expand fitness programs; support outdoor activities like sports and gardening; and host health expos, crafts fairs, and other events.

As in other towns, Wellesley’s COA is stepping up intergenerational programs. A high school student leads a technology club for seniors. And the council helped launch a townwide band whose members range from teens to octogenarians.

Lifelong learning programs are also proliferating. Tufts and Brandeis host Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, offering courses from “The Films of Woody Allen” to “Stem Cells: Promises & Pitfalls” to “Great American Jewish Songwriters: 1900-1950.” The Newburyport Senior Center even offers a course in writing your own obituary.

Older adults like Diane McGary of Dracut are creating their own networks, such as through Meetup.


“At our age you shouldn’t be doing something you don’t like,” said McGary, 63. “You should be able to find something you have a passion for.”

Through Meetup, she has found hiking and biking partners who move at her pace, and reading groups that share her interests. McGary, who ushers at theaters in Boston and the Merrimack Valley, suggests hireculture.com as a source for internships and jobs in the arts.

Joyce Waddington directs Wellesley Neighbors, which connects seniors in the western suburbs to each other and to services to help them stay in their homes. To the surprise of some of her colleagues, she has made social activities a top priority.

“All the research now is that social engagement is key to maintaining physical as well as intellectual acuity as you age,” Waddington said. “We focus heavily on giving older adults opportunities to work with, laugh with, go hiking with, and have dinner with other older adults.”

Wellesley Neighbors is part of the village movement, which began on Beacon Hill and is now fanning out across the country. Nearly 20 are in operation or development in Massachusetts, including Newton at Home, Carleton-Willard at Home (serving the Bedford area), and the newest, Newburyport at Home. South of Boston, the Coastal Neighbors Network is being organized out of South Dartmouth.

The over-60 population is expanding at both ends of the age spectrum, thanks to longer life spans. As a demographic, it’s anything but monolithic. While some older adults seek new sources of fulfillment and community, others face diminished physical and mental capacities.

The Aging Mastery program helps older adults navigate their retirement years.

“The premise is: ‘We’ve been given this gift of time; how are we going to make best use of it?’ ” said Joanne Moore, director of the Duxbury Senior Center. It was one of a handful of centers to pilot the initiative, which is now offered by 50 senior centers in the state and many more nationwide.

The 10-week program offers strategies for flexing minds and bodies; eating well; managing finances; engaging with others; and making end-of-life decisions.

Through elective classes, the program encourages personal growth. Participants commit to projects such as capturing the beauty of the world around them by taking photos each day for a month.

While Andover’s senior center offers programs for older seniors, it’s keeping an eye on the up-and-coming crowd as well. Boomers caring for their parents can attend seminars and a support group offered by the center’s BoomerVenture initiative.

BoomerVenture grew out of a mandate from Andover’s town manager to come up with incentives to keep empty nesters from moving away.

“Once you start to retire and your kids are out of school, it’s harder to find a place of peers,” said Payne-Taylor, noting that 40 percent of the town’s homeowners are 50 and older. With BoomerVenture activities, people forge new friendships and reconnect with people they knew when their children were young. Many volunteer to help frail adults. Payne-Taylor, program director for the senior center, said she’s selective about activities. “If I don’t feel it’s enriching, we don’t do it,” she said.

BoomerVenture exercise programs range from serenity yoga to belly dancing. Other offerings include aromatherapy, circle drumming (a great stress reliever, Payne-Taylor says), and screenings of independent movies.

While most activities are on Thursday nights, they’ve served to increase interest in the center’s other programs.

Not that age itself matters when it comes to who participates. “If they’re older or younger, that’s fine with us as long as the activities are appropriate physically,” Payne-Taylor said. “We don’t card.”

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.