Shortly after retiring to Henderson County in 2009, George Raab was driving through Hendersonville’s Jackson Park when he happened upon a group of men playing softball.
“I said to my wife, ‘They look like seniors,’ and I pulled over,” says Raab, now 76. “I didn’t know anybody. I talked to them, and that was it. That’s what got me started.”
For the next decade, Raab participated in Henderson County Senior Softball, a league for men ages 50-85. Through the group, he stayed active, forged friendships and even had the chance to participate in the state Senior Games finals in Raleigh several times.
“We call it healthy aging, and it really is,” explains Raab, who lives in Zirconia, a community about 7 miles southeast of Hendersonville. “When you’re exercising, you’re doing your body good, you’re doing your heart good. And it’s kind of a family thing, because nobody really takes it serious, and you get to know all of the other guys from the other teams.”
Raab’s experience is not unique. Throughout Western North Carolina, local governments, senior centers and recreation leagues are creating opportunities for the area’s aging population to exercise, make social connections, compete and keep their minds sharp. And experts say all of that is crucial for people entering their golden years.
“They’re meeting people, they’re talking, they’re working, they’re playing,” says Lynn Metcalf, Henderson County’s senior activities program coordinator. “They’re not sitting at home by themselves. It takes skill, thinking through things and thinking through strategies in some of these activities, so I think it helps them cognitively.”
Adds Julie Parker, activities coordinator for Polk County Senior Services: “Our biggest goal is helping people to stay in their own homes and not have to go to assisted living. If they’re able to be independent longer, their life span is longer. Probably the biggest advantage in being healthy longer is being able to see your grandchildren grow up and being there for them as long as possible.”
Wide range of programs
In keeping with Senior Games guidelines, local recreation programs for seniors allow people to participate starting at age 50. But most who take part are in their 60s, 70s or 80s — and sometimes even older.
“We have one person who is 100,” says Melinda Polites, administrator for the Lakeview Center for Active Aging in the Town of Black Mountain. “She has come to classes faithfully for many years.”
With such a wide range of ages, administrators like Polites find it necessary to offer a variety of programs.
“We have a Friday morning exercise class that’s a little faster paced, and we have a tai chi class that is also mostly standing up the whole time,” she explains. “But there’s some folks that just can’t stand on their feet for an hour, so we try to balance that.”
With that in mind, the center offers popular “sit and be fit” and chair yoga classes and recently launched a chair volleyball class. In the game, six participants per team sit in chairs and play with a beach ball. The center adopted the idea after Polites heard about a similar program in Tennessee.
“It’s more beneficial than I even thought because it has coordination requirements,” Polites says. “We have some folks who are in the beginnings of dementia, and I have watched some struggling just with the act of serving: throwing up with one hand and hitting with the other. They have to think about it. And then you have to be quick on your response.”
Even the simple act of sitting in a chair while playing can prove challenging for seniors who lack agility, she says.
The Lakeview Center also offers a dance aerobics class and hopes to bring back a square-dancing class that folded during COVID-19 restrictions. Additionally, it will soon start offering Walk With Ease, an Arthritis Foundation program designed to reduce the pain of arthritis and improve overall health.
“We have some sort of exercise thing five days a week,” Polites says. “The No. 1 benefit for us is social opportunity. It’s scientifically proven that there’s a connection between isolation and depression and dementia. And then of course, programs that help with moving and balance are good for preventing falls.”
Parker says Polk County’s senior center, the Meeting Place, screens new participants for depression, asking questions about how much time they spend with people outside their homes, for instance. Officials found many of the seniors were not seeing anyone but their spouse most days and were generally lonely.
“People who are new, they may come in and seem a little down,” she says. “And so it does help being able to come out and be more active and have friends you can do it with. We do see a change in them a lot of the times. They just get a big smile on their faces, and it’s really nice see that.”
The Meeting Place, located in Columbus, offers classes in group fitness, indoor cycling, movement, yoga, cardio drumming, exercise bingo and more. The center also has a fully equipped gym that is open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays.
Games seniors play
In addition to her role with the Meeting Place, Parker is Senior Games coordinator for Polk County. The county started participating in the games in 2020.
This year’s Polk County games, which will take place May 2-31, will offer residents a chance to compete in table tennis, swimming, cornhole, pickleball, croquet, boccie, shuffleboard, bowling, minigolf and and more sports. The top three finishers in each age category for each sport will advance to the state finals, which will take place August-October.
About 75 people took part last year, and Parker hopes that number increases to 100 this year.
“A lot of those events that we do in our Senior Games, we also do those during the year,” Parker says. “So we have cornhole clinics, we have a pickleball group that gets together almost every day at Stearns Gym [in Columbus]. We have a little pickleball court here at the Senior Center, but it’s not up to par for people who are really into pickleball.”
Henderson County’s Metcalf also is in charge of her county’s Senior Games, which will be May 1-22, this year. Upon taking the job last year, she decided to gear activities around Senior Games sports, including table tennis, cornhole, cycling, pickleball, croquet, boccie and basketball.
Among other things, the county also offers a cheerleading group and a Wednesday fun walk at Jackson Park. Metcalf hopes to add a monthly hike when the weather warms up.
Mary Davis, 63, retired to Hendersonville in 2016 after working as associate director of recreation at UNC Charlotte. She started participating in Senior Games in 2022 but had been familiar with the program for years, even volunteering in the 1990s.
“Senior Games is about fitness, fellowship, family,” she says. “It’s all of those things. We sometimes bring my granddaughter along when we do things, so it’s a way for a whole family to get involved.”
Davis swims most days and cycles regularly during warm weather months. “Exercise time and also recreation time is really important as you get older, not only just for the socialization, but for the activity,” she says. “Keeping moving through the wintertime is important for anyone that’s a senior. I think it’s really easy in the wintertime to get very comfortable in your warm house.”
Like Polites, Metcalf says it is vital to make activities available to seniors of differing abilities.
“When they come in, we just adjust on the fly whatever activity we’re doing to make sure that all physical capabilities are able to participate,” she says. “I had a 97-year-old come in who wanted to do some of the board games. So we’ve moved the room in which we’re holding it to make it more accessible to him so he doesn’t have to move so far to get to the room.”
That points to an inescapable reality: Even the most active seniors find that their physical abilities change as they get older.
After years of competing in softball, for instance, Raab transitioned to pickleball a few years ago.
“Like most guys my age, it was knee problems,” he says. “I could still play softball, but it wasn’t as much fun. And when I got into the pickleball, I realized that I could do this and it doesn’t bother my legs. And it seemed like it was better exercise for me.”