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Senior centers provide valuable resources

A wood carving group is just one of the options for exploring hobbies at the Rambling River Center.

Social hub. Educational resource. Fitness center.

Exactly what purpose Farmington's Rambling River Center serves for the city's senior population can vary greatly depending whom you ask. For some it's a place to meet old friends and make new ones. For others, it's a place to get needed food with events like a monthly Senior Food For Health distribution or day-old bread. Still others keep fit at the center's workout room or discover new hobbies with groups that offer line dancing or wood carving.

In some ways, the center's offerings have changed significantly since it opened its doors in 1982. But in other ways it's very much the same place it's always been.

"When I first started they played cards, and they still play cards," said Rambling River Center coordinator Missie Kohlbeck. "That's good for your mind. The cards never deal out the same way twice."

Back before there was a Rambling River Center, Farmington had a pair of senior groups that met in town, one at the fairgrounds and one at what at the time was Farmington Lutheran Church. When those groups got together, they found funding from the Metropolitan Agency on Aging and raised $75,000 to buy a building. The groups talked to city government about running the building and the operation seemed to fit naturally into the mission of the city's parks and recreation department.

The building, located at the corner of Spruce and Third streets, was a gathering place for seniors. Over the years it was home to card games and pool tournaments. There were dinners and other events. The building was for a time the hub of a Meals on Wheels operation and regular lunches for seniors.

The offerings changed somewhat as the senior population changed. The modern generation is seniors is less interested in card games and more interested in keeping in shape. But the overall goal largely the same: Keep seniors active, both mentally and physically, and keep them connected to each other and to their community.

That seems to be happening. Seniors meet new friends at the event. And they discover new interests. If people miss a group meeting once or twice, other members start to wonder about them.

"We've become a family," said Alleen Wichter, who was at the center Tuesday for a wood carving class. "It's such a nice place, and they've got lots of offerings."

There are benefits to that. If seniors are in better shape, they're less likely to fall and break a hip. They're less likely to end up in a nursing home. Building a senior center takes some up-front spending, but Kohlbeck argues that it can lead to savings down the line.

"If they're busy and with friends, they're keeping their bodies healthy and fit," she said.

That will become increasingly important as the Baby Boom generation ages. Something like 10,000 people turns 65 every week.

Much of what's offered at the Rambling River Center depends on the talents Farmington's seniors have to share. The wood carving class where Wichter was putting the finishing touches on a miniature boot exists because one of the center's members is a skilled wood carver who was willing to share his hobby. Another member donated a ping-pong table and offered lessons.

"Each community's senior center is a little different," Kohlbeck said.

Kohlbeck conducts regular surveys to see what seniors are interested in and pays attention to national trends.

The Rambling River Center typically gets big turnouts for special events like an annual Christmas lunch put on by the Farmington Rotary. A new Scandinavian dinner drew about 65 people this year.

An attempt this summer to add pickleball, a sport catching on with seniors around the country, drew only a handful of people, but Kohlbeck said she'll keep trying to draw interest.

Rambling River Center is growing. When city government moved to a new city hall, seniors pushed to transfer a bursting-at-the seams operation to the former city building. Senior volunteers did much of the renovation work themselves and they continue to raise money to pay for the project.

Kohlbeck said there's a lot to like about working with seniors.

"I think seniors are really nice to work with because they're really honest in a good way," Kohlbeck said ."If they don't like it, they say, 'I didn't like it and this is why.' But when they like it they make sure you know they like it too."

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

(651) 460-6606