Senior Citizens in Day and Residential Camping

by Gilbert M. Fornaciari, Ph.D., and Ann S. Martin-Fornaciari, M.A.

Camp professionals know that camp is a positive and beneficial experience for everyone. All too often, when speaking of camp and the benefits of camp, the senior community is overlooked. Camp is not just for kids, and its benefits are not dependent on the age of the camper. Organized camp can be vital for seniors, not only because of the emphasis on diversity and acceptance, but also because of the improvement in mind, body, and spirit that occurs.

Who are senior campers? While it may be hard to picture the sweet and gentle neighbor in hiking boots and a canoe, many senior campers are camp alumni — having attended a day or resident camp in their youth or participated in a family camp. Senior citizens, who enjoyed a positive camp experience in the past, may also find senior camping to be part of a new horizon in their lives — fulfilling a desire to meet new challenges or accomplish new goals.

Preparing Seniors for Camp

Camp success for seniors is directly related to preparation and introduction. Precamp materials sent to potential senior campers give them a "heads up" regarding the camp experience — what to expect, how to prepare, costs, etc. Just like with traditional camp populations, orientation meetings provide valuable information, allow for question-and-answer sessions, and build a comfort level for the first-time camper. Showing a DVD at meetings or providing marketing materials will help illustrate camp activities, both indoors and outdoors, as well as group sessions. Provide a handson demonstration of camp activities to give senior campers a "taste" of camp life. Incorporating comments and testimonials from past senior campers will be helpful for senior campers to view and read.

At the opening camp meeting, a"Raggedy Ann" introduction is suggested — where two people who do not know each other beforehand, interview each other and introduce them to the group. Icebreakers included early in the meeting will increase the comfort level of potential campers, both with camp staff and with each other.

Components of a Successful Senior Camp Program

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the senior citizen population will see a 40 percent increase in the next five years. The world's 65-and-older population is projected to triple by midcentury, from 516 million in 2009 to 1.53 billion in 2050 (Senior Journal 2009). In addition, according to Asenath LaRue, a senior scientist at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, there are three main preventative actions that assist with brain fitness — physical activity, challenging the brain, and staying socially active (Senior Journal 2009). An increase in the senior population will directly translate into demand for intentional, positive, activities and experiences specifically designed for this age group. Camp is a natural fit for the senior niche, providing physical activity, new challenges, and socialization with peers.

So, how can you implement a program for senior citizens at your camp? Like traditional camp populations, successful programming takes forethought and planning. There are five elements to consider — recruitment, diversity, facilities, activities, and evaluation.

Recruiting Campers and Staff
Regardless of whether the camp is ecumenical, religious/spiritual, agency, private, or college-based, recruiting potential campers is critical. Without campers, the program cannot be viable. Marketing, networking, and one-on-one consultations are the key to recruitment. Introductory meetings for interested seniors can be held at religious sites, senior centers, local meeting places, and/or at "coffees" in private homes. Ask former "happy campers" to relay their experiences and recommend the camp experience to friends, fellow church or synagogue members, and at their senior centers. It's important to reach out to these potential campers on their terms. Don't hesitate to provide information to a senior newsletter, participate in senior activity fairs, or sponsor a senior coffee at a local restaurant. The key is to reach potential campers and to get them interested in camp.

Another aspect of recruitment, similar to traditional camp, is to find appropriate staff. This is crucial. Look within the volunteers that work within the existing senior community. Seek within religious communities, universities, and elderhostels. Ask your existing volunteer base if they would be interested in working with a new camp program. The goal is to gather competent staff, who can guide campers and create a fun and positive experience. Make sure that staff are fully trained, and understand any nuances of working with an older population.

Build Diversity

Attracting and providing programs for seniors from various socio-economic, ethnic, and/or religious groups is an art versus a science. And, it is vital that it be taken seriously. Experiencing relationships with people who are outside of their normal social circles is every bit as beneficial for senior campers as it is for children. Although it may take more effort and creativity than with younger populations, diversity still needs to be an intentional aspect of camp programming. As we (Farinella and Fornaciari 1982) have previously stated in Camping Magazine, "People are all the same in their needs, but are different by degree in their cultural differences." By focusing on the "sames" (i.e., love, acceptance, recognition, and new experience) as the core elements of programming, campers will walk away with a new understanding of differences and will be able to celebrate and cherish diversity in their peer groups.

Ensure Appropriate Facilities

Although the camp experience is equally beneficial for senior campers, it's important to remember that this population brings its own particular needs as far as facilities. For example, double check that the camp is "user friendly" and includes elements like somewhat level terrain, disability ramps, comfortable and accessible quarters, and private baths/showers. Pay special attention to lodging facilities, providing first floor lodging for seniors with special needs. When planning meals, take into consideration campers with special diets, dietary needs (i.e., Kosher meals), and "camperfriendly" foods. Healthy snacks should be provided and readily available for campers throughout the day. Ample beverages need to be available at all times, especially when the camp environment is located in high altitude areas.

Senior campers may be wary of the camp experience if they have special medical needs. Make sure that appropriate medical staff — a physician's assistant, nurse, or doctor — is on full-time duty during camp. Let your campers know who the medical staff are and that additional medical assistance (doctor's office, hospital, or local urgent care center) is available to the camp at all times. Provide a private location for medical discussions to ensure privacy. Additionally, let campers know that the camp is equipped with basic medical equipment for their needs, including refrigeration for medications.

Program Activities

The first component of program planning for seniors is to determine what campers' needs and expectations are. Closely examine the "Senior Camp Evaluation" (sample evaluation) from previous years, or, if this is the first time your camp has run a senior program, review evaluations from potential campers at meetings and gatherings. Ask staff to use these evaluations to determine what programs and activities would be of most benefit and interest to the campers.

Next, create an in-depth senior camp application (sample application) to help plan programming that meets the requests of campers. For example, one camper commented that an important aspect of camp was the ability to take a hot shower each day because in the city he only had a bathtub. Finding the simple aspects of programming and facilities that may enhance the camper experience is critical to camper satisfaction and retention.

There are numerous types of camp activities that engage seniors. Excellent ideas for promoting group awareness and bonding include team-building exercises, discussion groups (blending together seniors of different ages, socio-economic levels, and sub-cultures), music, art expression, relaxation exercises, meditation, and environmental education. Hiking and daily exercise may also be important for some campers. Field trips can be implemented if possible, depending on the location of the camp. For example, the Frank Lloyd Wright tour in southern Wisconsin, ethnic neighborhoods, historical sites, Kellogg's in Battle Creek, Michigan, and Amana Colonies in Iowa.

In addition, you can include guest speakers — focusing on world religions/ spiritual topics, health and wellness, or ethnic/regional travelogues — or informative DVDs to stimulate group discussions. Participating in group singing, before large group discussions or meals is a positive way to express a sense of community. Another way to engage campers in small group activities are with "cook offs" in the camp kitchen, competitive games, and trivia.

Seniors also need free time to unwind and rest or just have casual interaction with each other. Some may want to visit local shops, stop at a café for coffee, or just play cards or board games. Other campers may prefer time for reflection, or time to prepare skits, sing-a-longs, and other group activities for later in the evening. After the evening activity, campers may want additional free time to play cards, watch movies, or go into town.

Evaluation

It is important for both informal and formal assessments of the program to be conducted. Asking the campers in a casual setting what they enjoyed most about camp will provide you with valuable insight into how programs and activities were received. This is also an excellent opportunity to ask campers if they are willing to participate in recruitment activities for the following year. Unlike traditional camp populations, who return to school in the fall, many senior campers are looking for opportunities and activities throughout the year.

A formal survey, asking campers what they liked most/least about the camp experience (Senior Camp Evaluation) will provide important data for the coming year, serving as the basis of camp program and activity planning for the following session. Although qualitative research gives clues about what happens to campers, it is the quantitative data that provides generalizations about the camp experience. Even unobtrusive measures can be used (i.e., how much wood is burned in a fireplace during an activity results in how long the activity continued) to determine which activities had the most positive response and impact on campers.

Create Emotional Connections

Perhaps one of t he most impor tant elements of a successful program is the creation of an emotional connection at camp. After the completion of the camp program, it's critical to go through the same "end-of-camp" rituals with senior campers that are done in more traditional camp settings. Even something as simple as asking each camper to select a "rock of remembrance" — signifying the remembrance and reflection of the camp experience — increases the emotional connection to camp. One of the benefits of camp is that a community is formed — often it is referred to as a "camp family." This connection may be even more vital for the senior population, where new friends and authentic relationships are not readily available in a classroom, afterschool activity, or at a neighbor's house. In order for senior camping to leave an impression on adult lives, create an impact at camp with carry-over value at home, with family and friends, and in the community.

References
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Originally published in the 2009 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

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