Detroit Parks & Recreation: Focusing on Fun to Keep Older Adults Active and Connected

This blog post is part of a spotlight series featuring examples of programs and community design changes that get older adults moving. The posts were first published as part of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Midcourse Report: Implementation Strategies for Older Adults and highlight ways to apply strategies from the report in different settings.

At a glance

Who? Detroit Parks & Recreation

What? A local government agency offering resources and services to help community members get active, build connections, and learn new skills.

Where can I learn more? 

One of the oldest parks and recreation systems in the nation, Detroit Parks & Recreation has been promoting quality of life, health, and community for all Detroiters since 1920. The department offers parks, greenways, and recreation centers — as well as a wide range of programs, events, and initiatives.

Among its many programs, the department offers a variety of fitness and wellness classes specifically intended to help older adults maintain an active and healthy lifestyle. The classes are designed to meet the needs of participants at all fitness and experience levels. And there’s a focus on building connections and camaraderie as much as on fitness.

“Providing accessible physical activity opportunities is one of our top priorities, but promoting connectivity is just as important,” says John Armstrong, the department’s Assistant Director of Recreation. “We work hard to bring community members together and give them a reason to get out and be happy.”

Strategy: Focus on Fun — for Everyone

Lisa Cunningham, Senior Coordinator for Detroit Parks & Recreation, describes fun as the key to successful programming. She says making programs fun can look like offering prizes as incentives for older adults to participate in group walks or playing upbeat music during aerobics activities.

This focus on fun is also, in part, why the department hosts events like the Detroit Senior Olympics and Senior Friendship Day every year. The Senior Olympics is a 3-day event where older adults compete in table games, soccer, basketball, and more. And Senior Friendship Day — which thousands of Detroiters attend — features music, dancing, and entertainment, as well as fitness and health education.

“We offer these special events to give older adults a chance to reconnect with old friends, form new friendships, and have an opportunity to just get out and see their beautiful city,” says Cunningham. “If they’re smiling, that’s how we know they’ll come back. Those smiles mean the world.”

Cunningham also says that for many older adults in Detroit, events like the Senior Olympics and Senior Friendship Day are an introduction to the services and programs that Detroit Parks & Recreation offers. “They have such a good time, they want to tell their friends and come back,” she says. “These activities act as a gateway for older adults to utilize their local parks and recreation centers to help maintain a healthy lifestyle as they age.”

Impact: Health Benefits in Safe Spaces

In a 2020 community needs assessment in Detroit, residents identified services and programming for seniors and access to safe outdoor spaces as important issues. These are needs that Detroit Parks & Recreation is well positioned to meet.

The department offers its programs and fitness classes at 12 recreation centers across the city, and many of those fitness classes meet the specific needs of older adults. Examples include Zumba classes that are adapted for people who have trouble standing and water aerobics classes, which are easier on participants’ joints than traditional aerobics offerings.

The department also offers classes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes as Arthritis-Appropriate, Evidence-Based Interventions — like Walk with Ease and Fit & Strong. The designation means the programs are proven to reduce arthritis symptoms and teach participants how to safely increase their physical activity to manage arthritis and other chronic conditions.

In addition, Detroit Parks & Recreation manages over 300 parks, many of which have designated walking paths with fitness stations that feature accessible options for physical activity. The department also works to make sure a variety of activities take place at many times throughout the day at parks. As the department notes in its strategic plan, this helps promote a natural sense of safety through “neighbors looking out for neighbors.” To further create a sense of safety, the department prioritizes park features like open sight lines, amenities close to pathways, and clear and open access points to nearby neighborhoods. 

Key Takeaway: Community Partnerships Increase Impact

Armstrong notes that historically, community groups have filled gaps to meet a variety of needs among residents. He says that for local government agencies like Detroit Parks & Recreation, partnering with those organizations is key to providing the most impactful services and resources for community members. For example, the department looks to regional park groups like the Detroit Parks Coalition to help coordinate programs within Detroit Parks & Recreation spaces.

“One of the most helpful things that a municipality can do is highlight the work that community groups are already doing and support their leadership in citywide improvements,” Armstrong says. “At Detroit Parks & Recreation, we intentionally recognize and uplift community-based efforts because we’ve seen firsthand the positive impact they have. And when we work together, that impact only increases.”

Categories: Blog