Growing older, and busier

“One, two, one, two, three, four,” comes the call from instructor Eileen Magnuson. “Legs up, shoulders up, pull in, hold... “Keep breathing...Relax!” Her pupils, women whose ages run sixty-ish to something higher, mirror Magnuson’s regimen of strength-building stretches, lifts and squats. From a boom box pulses a big-band arrangement of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

“One, two, one, two, three, four,” comes the call from instructor Eileen Magnuson. “Legs up, shoulders up, pull in, hold…

“Keep breathing…Relax!”

Her pupils, women whose ages run sixty-ish to something higher, mirror Magnuson’s regimen of strength-building stretches, lifts and squats. From a boom box pulses a big-band arrangement of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

The two-day-a-week exercise class is one of several offered by the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center, and held in the Bainbridge Commons. Arrayed in sweats and sneakers, participants look forward to the workout.

“I think that’s the big, important thing for seniors,” Delores Bussell says between stretches, “to not sit around and feel sorry for yourself.”

Much too busy to grow old, Senior Center members these days are more concerned with growth, period.

With 816 active members – 100 new faces joined last year alone – the organization is seeing something of a population boom.

And as the center proper comprises only the cramped west wing of the Bainbridge Commons building – a single meeting room, a kitchen and thrift store, and a small reception area and office – space is becoming an issue.

“Sometimes we are falling all over ourselves,” said Barbara McGilvray, center director, “and I don’t know that that doesn’t discourage people (from coming).”

While they’re still in the thinking-out-loud stage, the center’s board members are considering their options for expansion. That could include a second story on their wing of the building, or finding annex space elsewhere.

“It’s cozy, but small,” said Bussell, board chair. “But if it grows, it’s going to not be cozy, but crowded.”

On paper, the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center calls its mandate “promoting well being for the older adult population.”

More informally, members say its goal is ensuring that local seniors “aren’t put on the shelf.”

For an annual fee of $5, members have access to a full range of social and educational activities, from line dancing to computer instruction.

Services and counseling are offered on senior health issues.

Lunch is served five days a week, including a once-a-month potluck; last year at the center, the Chuckwagon nutrition program served more than 4,000 hot meals.

Exercise classes can draw 20 or more participants; on some days, as many as 100 seniors come through the door for some activity or other.

Programs include such ageless favorites as card games and low-stakes Bingo, but skew increasingly toward get-up-and-go fare like exercise and day trips.

A robust but not atypical daily schedule this month looked like this:

9 a.m. Exercise

10:20 a.m. Exerstriding

11 a.m. Chorus

12 p.m. Lunch

12:30 p.m. Bridge

6 p.m. Cribbage

The same morning saw a dozen members depart by van for Harrison Hot Springs, an overnight outing. Other favorite destinations include casinos and Seattle Mariners games.

And while society tends to lump “senior citizens” into a single age group, they represent a generational range as wide as folks from birth to age 40.

Indeed, while some join the Senior Center at age 55, the group also boasts an exclusive 90-and-over club. But younger is okay, too.

“We feel age is really arbitrary,” McGilvray said, “and whoever wants to come in can come in.”

Now in her 70s, board member Marcia Rudoff got involved a decade ago, drawn to an exercise program through which she hoped to rehab from an ailment.

She expected, by her own admission, to find a group of “old biddies” pining away around the building. Her perceptions of the center’s vibrance changed when she found out she was younger by a year than the class instructor’s daughter.

“I come here and I feel like a kid again,” she said. “It’s a great lift.”

Growing young

What the community knows today as the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center began two decades ago, in the Grange Hall on North Madison Avenue.

There, under the auspices of the the Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District, Walter Demler and Joyce Kallgren began coordinating recreation programs aimed at seniors in 1981.

Two years later, with a long-term lease from the Winslow City Council, the group moved into a city-owned, three-bedroom house on Bjune Drive in Waterfront Park. The building was remodeled, and the center formalized operations as a non-profit corporation.

In 1985, a small addition was built. Then in 1994, the city used condemnation to acquire the “Woody house,” a private residence next door. The two buildings were joined with a 1,400-square-foot meeting hall, kitchen and restrooms, creating the Bainbridge Commons.

The “Woody” wing was retooled as a satellite clinic for the Kitsap County Health District, and the city council began holding its meetings in the main hall.

Management of the Commons was later turned over to the Senior Center. But they weren’t given exclusive use, and the main hall is often rented out to community groups and private organizations.

Most senior activities, including luncheons and games, are still held in the center’s Kallgren Room addition.

Taking up the balance of the space is the Senior Thrift Store, which offers several racks of affordable fashions and generates money for operations.

The building arrangement is generally favorable, as the city maintains ownership and provides maintenance at no cost.

The salaries of McGilvray and two assistants come through the park district, and total around $60,000 a year. The district also maintains the center’s van.

Volunteers fuel many center activities; last year, more than 100 people gave 13,000 hours of their time as instructors and activity leaders.

The center had operating and capital funds of about $50,000 last year, with more than 20 percent coming from the Bainbridge Foundation. Other funds came from program fees, small grants and individual donations.

Some money has been squirreled away for future improvements. But there is no immediate solution to the lack of space, and the center board is planning a retreat to discuss options.

Designs were drawn up for a second floor addition, but costs caused the group to look at other options. They’re among the participants on a park district task force looking at long-term facilities needs including gymnasiums and ball fields.

In the meantime, they hope to get their problem in front of the community.

“We’re just bursting at the seams,” Rudoff said. “We need to create an awareness that we need space.”

Additional space could be found elsewhere, board members say, but that would leave center activities dispersed and make transportation an issue.

And the board is looking well beyond the demands of the recent spike in membership.

According to the 2000 census, about 4,900 Bainbridge residents – 24.1 percent – are age 55 and older. More significant is the group that’s coming along right behind them – another 22 percent of islanders fall into the 45-54 age group, compared to just 14 percent in that demographic statewide.

That, center members say, puts a certain imperative to planning.

“We want to make sure these same things are in place for those folks coming down the pike,” McGilvray said.

Rudoff expressed it another way.

“We’re impatient,” she said. “You’re dealing with seniors – we’d like to see it in our lifetime.”