Richardson seniors may be mere months away from gaining access to an updated recreation center that is more than five years in the making.

Voters approved nearly $5 million in renovations to the Richardson Senior Center as part of the city’s 2015 bond package. Construction began early in the spring of 2020, just days before county-mandated shutdowns brought many city services to a grinding halt. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the project has progressed without interruptions and is on schedule for completion in April 2021.

“The contractors are really doing a great job staying on task and keeping things moving along,” said Lori Smeby, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s looking good out there.”

The center, located at the corner of Arapaho Road and West Shore Drive, has served Richardson residents age 50 and older since 1993. Updates to the building will improve services, safety and efficiency in the aging building, which opened as a bank in 1965.

“We want this project to be a jewel for our seniors and to really reflect the needs of what the senior community deserves in a facility,” Smeby said.

It is unknown what the new year will bring in terms of the virus. Smeby said it’s entirely possible the center will have to remain closed once renovations are complete in the spring.

“We still don’t have any plans to reopen,” she said. “We’re just going to watch [the virus] carefully and hope that come spring, when we have this facility ready to go, that we can open in some type of modified fashion.”

Over the past eight months, Smeby’s staff has remained dedicated to not only providing essential services for seniors but also keeping them engaged socially through virtual programs and events. This dedication will continue for as long as the pandemic prevents in-person gatherings, she said.

Details of the design

Richardson’s senior population has slowly but steadily increased over the past six years. Single-year population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show the share of residents age 65 and older totaled 17,354 in 2019, or an increase of about 15% since 2014.

Square footage of the center will grow only slightly as a result of the renovations, but the updated layout is more efficient and can better accommodate the city’s growing senior population, Smeby said.

“There is going to be a lot more activity space than there was previously,” she said.

Among the upgrades are a bigger fitness room, an enlarged kitchen and dining area, two large multipurpose rooms with movable walls, bigger classrooms, a drive-up covered entrance and a new outdoor courtyard.

Originally budgeted at just under $5 million, the renovation project now costs closer to $8 million, said Jim Dulac, the city’s assistant director of engineering. This is because the budget did not include the replacement of mechanical systems, exterior site improvements or street upgrades, such as those made to the section of Arapaho Road outside of the center.

The cost increase was further exacerbated by the region’s rapid growth of inflation, Dulac said.

“That $5 million does not go as far today as we thought it was going to go back in 2015,” he said.

Engineering staff presented a number of bid alternates that would have brought down the cost of the renovation, but Richardson City Council ultimately voted to approve supplemental funding to cover the full project scope.

Appealing to a younger demographic

Nearly 1,600 seniors were members of the center prior to COVID-19. One of the goals of the project is to attract seniors who fall into the lower age bracket. The average age of members is 75, Smeby said.

Richardson residents pay a one-time membership fee of $5 and have access to special events, trips, programs, classes, and health and wellness services. The city has formed focus groups to come up with programming ideas for younger members.

“Part of our interest as we have moved along in this renovation effort is to really make this facility and the programming ... something that is highly desirable to all ages in the 50-plus market,” Smeby said.

Encouraging seniors ages 55-65 to use the center will also ensure that certain traditions—such as crocheting blankets for veterans and infants in nearby neonatal intensive care units—are carried on for years to come, Yvonne Falgout, the city’s assistant director of recreation and events, told Community Impact Newspaper in a previous interview.

•We want to make sure those things get passed onto the next group coming through,” she said.

Some younger residents have been hesitant to use the center because of the word “senior” in its name, Smeby told council during an October 2019 briefing. As a result, a focus group met earlier this year to study the possibility of renaming the center.

Support through COVID-19

In absence of in-person gatherings, Senior Center staff have turned to virtual events, such as online book club and Zoom hangouts, to keep members engaged.

It is now more crucial than ever to protect the older adult community, said Stacy Malcolmson, president and CEO of The Senior Source, a nonprofit serving seniors in the Greater Dallas area. Many seniors have lost their jobs or volunteer opportunities, which results in a dampened sense of purpose, she added.

“Social isolation has been really debilitating—it affects your mental well-being, which then impacts your physical well-being,” Malcolmson said.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in four older adults has reported anxiety or depression during most weeks since the onset of the pandemic, which is an increase from the one in 10 older adults who reported the same issues in 2018.

The shift to virtual platforms has been challenging for some seniors, especially those who are low-income, Malcolmson said. As a result, The Senior Source has invested in technology training so its volunteers can help seniors connect with the outside world.

Comfort with technology is likely one of the reasons keeping more seniors from participating in virtual Senior Center events, Smeby said.

“While we would always love to have more participation, it’s been what we have expected,” she said. “The seniors that have been able to participate have enjoyed it and appreciated it.”

In the meantime, staff has launched drive-thru events so that seniors can have at least some face-to-face interaction with their friends. The center hosted a Nov. 24 drive-thru Thanksgiving event that served pre-boxed dinners to 120 seniors.

“They’re tired of looking at someone through a computer monitor,” Smeby said of Senior Center members. “They would rather just be in person, even if you can’t touch each other.”