The Aging Well Center is living up to its name. On any day, folks 55 and older are there maximizing their mental and physical capabilities — dancing to the Macarena in a fast-paced aerobics class, doing water exercises, performing the slow moves of tai chi, or enjoying lively discussions about the news.
Its 8,000 square feet tucked into the Long Center at 1501 N Belcher Road, the center promotes strong bodies and active minds in seniors from all over Pinellas County.
Sheryl Crutchfield, whose background is in geriatric care management, came on board seven months ago as the Aging Well Center's supervisor. She was taken aback by what she found.
"I was absolutely delighted with the fitness level of our patrons," she said. "They are highly fit not only for our demographics but for adults of all ages across the country."
Kerry Marsalek, manager of the city of Clearwater's Office on Aging, expressed pleasure at both the number and the varied interests of participants. Since the center opened in 2010, new programs have been added monthly.
"We average over 1,200 visits a month in the summer," Marsalek said, "and that figure goes way up in the winter when the part-time residents return."
Classes are open to people who live outside of Clearwater as well.
In September alone, the center added 20 more programs. "Our partners have expanded, so all our programs have as well," she said.
Twenty-five nonprofit partners are considered essential to Aging Well Center's success.
"Fifty percent of our classes are offered at no cost since they are offered by our partners," Marsalek said. "We are conveniently located and provide the bricks and mortar for all kinds of intellectual and physical activity to take place."
Among those partners are the Morton Plant Mease hospital system; the Literacy Council of Upper Pinellas; the Gulfcoast Legal Services' Elder Law Project; the Pinellas Genealogy Society; the Clearwater Audubon Society; and Health Ways, a disease management company.
Health Ways has contracted with 11 Medicare Advantage programs and with the city of Clearwater to provide the popular Silver Sneakers aerobic classes free for those enrolled in one of the 11 plans. Five Clearwater recreational centers now offer Silver Sneakers programs.
"We projected we'd have 300 participants when we started that program in June of 2011," Marsalek said. "At our one-year mark we had passed 1,100 participants at the five sites combined."
On a recent morning, 15 men and women in workout clothes and athletic shoes gathered in the center's large mirrored room used for Silver Sneakers programs. The energetic young instructor, Janet Frye, flipped on a CD player and out boomed the Macarena with its jazzy Latin beat. Arms and legs went into motion immediately.
"This is my favorite group of people," Frye said of the Medicare-age participants. "They are always appreciative and enjoy each other's company as well."
These are seniors on the move. For 45 minutes without a break, except for an occasional sip of water, they followed Frye's loud calls: "Arm to knee — side to side — back — forward — now double!" Frye began swinging her arms in double circles and the class followed.
Beverly Zacher, 78, didn't miss a beat in spite of her braced knee, which she had broken some months before.
"I come at least four days a week and just love it," she said. "The teacher doesn't push you to do what you can't do."
Silver Sneakers covers two forms of cardiovascular workouts in this large room, sometimes entailing the use of weights, ropes or rubber balls. The program also includes "Silver Splash," which works on shallow water moves in the center's pool. All programs are designed to improve flexibility and cardiovascular endurance.
The Aging Well Center opened in 2010 and was a priority of then-Mayor Frank Hibbard.
Marsalek has learned a few things about seniors since the center opened. For one thing, they are savvy patrons who want choices.
"The days of cards and bingo are over," she said. "We get requests for more varied physical and intellectual opportunities."
That list keeps growing. Zumba, a vigorous exercise program performed to Latin dance rhythms, had been scheduled for three times a week, but more classes are being added. The classes are usually packed.
For the discussion-oriented, the Socrates Cafe was recently launched and is gaining in popularity.
"This is a facilitated discussion group that talks about any topic except politics," Marsalek said. "Twenty people came to the first session and 25 showed up for the second."
The center's offerings include something for just about everyone: gardening; advice on legal matters; seminars on stress and anxiety; courses directed at building technological skills; and a variety of health and caregiving seminars.
Marsalek has a vision of more to come. Her goal is to make the Aging Well Center a national model for diverse and enjoyable programs.
"We want to redefine what a center for older adults can be," she said. "In two years we've taken a lot of steps toward that goal."
Times correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]