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A Walk Through the Senior Circuit

Village offers senior citizens countless social, mental and physical activities.

HILT meetings are another world. Ridgewood's seniors-only community group meets twice monthly for business and pleasure.

It's a vibrant community with evident solidarity. Hunkered down in Village Hall's Community Center, seniors gather to discuss shared experiences, caution against scam artists and plan new opportunities.

Although sometimes impatient or paranoid with others, the group is largely a positive body.

President Hope Reynolds commands the floor and chastises chatters. There's business to be done: accounting finances to the penny, explaining new trips and programs (with complimentary running commentary), and updating necessary contact information.

Some ladies incessantly pester a recreation employee for a table, while 65 others things are going on. She obliges but with an (excusably) agitated demeanor. Often, the seniors get a little rude, another employee explains. 

This underground culture is comprised of former doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Although the community can be cranky, it remains eager for new experiences and friendships.

Ridgewood provides 'advocate'

Through both HILT (Highlights for Leisure Time) and the Community Center, the Division of Recreation organizes most senior activities.

The HILT coordinator, Jody Schleicher, has worked with the village for four years. Partnering with Community Center Director Nora Muzio, the two plan countless trips, classes, and speakers for seniors.

Muzio started in October 2006 part time and became a staff member last summer. Before coming on full time, Muzio often logged 50-hour weeks.

"I did it because I could start something from nothing. It'd be all mine." She was excited for the Community Center, because it really gave seniors a place, she said.

"They shouldn't have to fight. They need an advocate."

Two senior groups

Attending a HILT meeting (the second Thursday in a month) verses a Community Center class one notices an age disparity. HILT predominates with older seniors who pay annual dues ($15) and attend planned trips. Because classes require more physical exertion, they tend to attract a younger crowd. Advance registration isn't always required, either.

Orderly in structure while simultaneously chaotic in practice, HILT meetings occur monthly before an outside speaker presents. The 150-member organization gets good attendance—60 people showed up Jan. 14—but only sees a 50 percent overlap with Community Center participants.

Muzio thinks a younger presence would give HILT a more dynamic personality and pushes Community Center regulars to join.

Many on the group's executive board are over 80-years-old. Muzio wants HILT to "get younger. But a lot of the newly retired are starting new businesses or watching their grandchildren."

Schleicher tries to schedule a variety of programs but often is constrained by HILT members' reluctance to walk or travel far.

The gender divide

In village-funded activities—through both HILT and the Community Center—women comprise the vast majority. Both Schleicher and Muzio point to the outside Hobbyist group as something that draws men away, but can't figure out a specific reason for the drastic demographic difference.

Often, Schleicher said, a few men start in a class but drop when it's apparent they're in the minority. "Men don't really want to be in there by themselves," she said. 

Members of the Volt Fitness class agreed. Taught by a personal trainer from the Glen Rock fitness center, the Wednesday class is men only and very popular. Although nearly no classes exist entirely for women, sometimes it feels that way, they said. The men enjoyed their own exclusive class.

Ample programming

Whatever the divides, numerous programs exist for seniors in a variety of disciplines. Art lessons and fitness classes abound, but the Division of Recreation seeks to further diversity its offerings.

Muzio recently introduced more cognitive challenges. 

"We felt like we're doing a good job, but looking at the programs we'd ask what's missing," Schleicher said.

Now, brainteasers are offered in addition to a bridge group. Originally combined with an artist reception at the Stable, the program mentally stimulates seniors through a variety of quizzes and word games.

On the physical side, Ridgewood's seniors have ample options—Jazzercise, yoga, Zumba, and other fitness programs are offered to both men and women.

Lisa Campbell teaches the Jazzercise course. Muzio brought her in following success at Mahwah's senior center. 

"It really keeps them moving," Campbell said. "It works the body and the mind, and it's good for their circulation."

Leading the aforementioned Volt course, Jackie Rick-Nellis precedes Campbell's class. Also the owner of Leapin' Lizards in town, Rick-Nellis holds a degree in exercise science.

Altering her lessons for seniors, she said she "stays aware of their center of gravity" and keeps on top of students' health issues.

In addition to mental and physical testers, creative classes are offered. Christal Chan teaches a Chinese brush painting course that incorporates Chinese culture into her lesson plans. She said she and her students have forged friendships over the years and will celebrate Chinese New Year together in the coming weeks.

Getting the word out

Promotion is difficult at times. Seniors vary in computer skills, so Web posting isn't ideal. Flyers or newspaper ads aren't always effective nor is word of mouth.

"Folks that are interested are already out. The folks that need it the worst are the ones in their homes," Muzio said.

Marilyn Sneirson found out about the art class through a newspaper listing. Her three years in the class have been "a wonderful experience," and she appreciates the program's cultural aspects.

But getting the introverts out of their houses can be challenging.

"In the winter, cabin fever goes on for a lot of seniors. I mean we're hearing, 'It's cold outside,' but they can't get out," Schleicher said. She points to the senior bus—offered twice weekly—as a remedy. However, the bus is only "slowly" catching on.

Schleicher encourage seniors to take it to class or activities at the Stable. Muzio is working to time her Tuesday classes to line up with the bus schedule. 

Even people that show interest sometimes are hesitant to ultimately show up.

"It takes some nerve, even if they know it's good for them. It's kind of like a new kid in class. It's scary," Muzio said.

For the brush painting class, a library exhibit drove up membership. Currently, the Ridgewood Public Library is displaying art from Chan's class in the auditorium. Muzio said people have signed up after viewing it.

Hit or miss

Schleicher and Muzio continually search for new and effective programs. Often they draw from other senior centers, the media or personal experiences. Zumba was introduced following a trip Schleicher had to Florida.

Additionally, Muzio constantly reevaluates programming. Her determining factor is attendance. 

Often, something that worked for years gets stale. "Sometimes even if it's successful or they enjoy it for a time, it can eventually run its course," she said. 

Fitness programs possess a certain variety through different routines or songs that sometimes mental or creative programs lack. "As long as it evolves, it doesn't get stale. It's more successful as it changes."

Muzio tries to avoid pulling the plug too early on a wavering program. After the holidays, people sometimes stay away or vacation in Florida. She said the Community Center is aware "so we don't get too alarmed."

Variety is also key so "there is something for everybody."

For a greater purpose

"Connections you have in professional and family life occur without trying. Then you retire, and it's like 'Now what?'" Muzio said. "I think a lack of purpose ages people."

At Muzio's Make a Difference Day—a volunteer program involving high school students erecting building frames for Habitat for Humanity—Muzio said four of her adult foremen were retired seniors.

In the end, Muzio just wants seniors to have purpose.

For more information on senior, or other village, activities, visit the Division of Recreation's Web site. 

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