The Windy City’s Neighbour

As I depart YYZ for ORD for the ACSP 2023 conference (ACA [academics love acronyms!]), I can’t help but be excited. I am going to Chicago to present a poster, learn about planning, and explore an interesting city! Conferences are a very cool way to expand your horizons and what better place to do it than while looking at the Lake Michigan horizon. However, this trip is not only exciting as I get to better understand planning through presentations and in-depth conversations, I will also get to experience successful planning with my own eyes. Following the conference, I will be heading to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois (or as locals call it Blo-No), to visit family and check out what the area has to offer. Blo-No is located in Central Illinois, approximately 125 miles southwest of Chicago. Notably, in 2023, the Bloomington-Normal Metro Area was ranked as the second-best metropolitan area in the nation to “live, work, and have fun”. Specifically, I was intrigued by the mention of fun, thus inspiring me to experience this for myself and blog along the way!

As of 2022, Blo-No had a population of 167,699 and a median age of 30.3. Older adults, those above the age 65, comprised only 9% of the population, 8 percentage points less than the national average. Being a mid-sized metropolitan area with a relatively small older adult population, I was especially interested to explore what older adult-oriented opportunities for fun exist within Blo-No…and I only had two days to do it.

To start off, I was able to observe environments specifically catered for older adult independence and recreation. This includes the Blair House, an all-inclusive independent retirement community, and the Activity and Recreational Center (ARC), an older adult recreational center. Although I was only able to drive by the Blair House, I was impressed by the website’s mention of amenities such as barber shop, theater, garden, and activity room – extending beyond the basic amenities of an ordinary apartment building. Next, only 1.5km away, I was able to get a guided tour of the ARC due to a very kind and chipper volunteer. Rebuilt in 2016 and currently one of the largest senior services centers in the state of Illinois, the ARC serves roughly 4,000 residents above the age of 55 for a steal-of-a-deal $30 annual membership fee. The low cost is thanks to the region’s Silver Sneakers initiative to provide free fitness and wellness opportunities to older adults on eligible Medicare plans. Within the ARC, I saw a large range of activities, amenities, course offerings, and happy older adults. Some personal highlights include food court social chatter, keen older adults saving seats an hour before bingo is set to start, and the computer lab with opportunities for technological assistance.

Looking beyond the institutions specifically serving older adults, I was curious how general built environments supported this population. To explore this, I was able to visit and observe the comings-and-goings at Uptown Normal, the Normal Public Library, and the YMCA. To start, Uptown Normal spans a handful of blocks with many local businesses and attractions, revolving around Uptown Circle. Uptown Circle, as pictured below, is an urban mini park encircled by a stormwater-cleansing water feature and native plants. This area is a well-loved relaxing and playful spot for locals to hang out and children to play in the water. Uptown Circle is also used for events such as concerts and farmers markets. In my time spent in the area, I was able to observe a solo older adult reading a book in Uptown Circle, intergenerational family fun at the local ice cream shop, and an older adult couple going into the retro and cool Normal Movie Theatre (built in 1937!).As this area is considered an “18-hour downtown” due to its frequency of use throughout the day, it is clear this does not exclude older adults as the variety of opportunity and flexibility of space seemed to equally apply this demographic.

Next, I visited Normal Public Library (NPL), one of the two public libraries in the metro area. While here, I was able to observe people of all ages as well as read the very cute and creative Fall 2023 Activity Guide. This package presented lots of opportunities for all ages such as the Knitting Club, Geneology Meetup, and Taxes in Retirement. In addition, the NPL book highlighted pop-ups that will be going to both the ARC and Blair House for three days within the season. Lastly, when in the YMCA to swim with my cousins, I stumbled upon an energetically guided water-aerobics class containing many older adults. The class was a real joy to observe as the older adults appeared to be seamlessly mixed in with the younger adults. The commonality of older adult recreation intertwined with public recreation seemed to be a good indicator of fun reaching all ages as well as community cohesion.

Lastly, looking beyond the formal and informal infrastructure serving older adults, I was hoping to have the opportunity to speak with someone in this community to understand their experience living in Blo-No. As my family was checking out at the grocery co-op, we were greeted by their old babysitter and friend, 60-something-year-old, Veronika. Veronika was dressed in a creatively colourful outfit matching a piece of art, self-titled an “art-fit”, and exuded an extremely vibrant and downright whimsical energy. While chatting with Veronika and asking what she does for fun, she responded with abundant joy and a very long list. Many of these recommendations included parks and trails as well as creative classes in the local area. Veronika shared how she personally has fun through writing, designing, and sharing poems within the community. One of her three distribution points was in the grocery co-op where my aunt shared that she picks up the poems weekly and often engages with Veronika. To her, Veronika was a staple of the community. After hearing about this activity and reading some passages, I was in awe as although Veronika is retired, she dedicates a lot of time every week to spread art and support community connections.

From an outsider perspective as neither a Blo-No local or an older adult, I am happy to report that my observations showed older adults included in the “fun” of Blo-No. While I’m sure there are aspects I have missed, from my quick two-day visit, the power of community was clear with the success of programs such as the ARC and encouragement of local artists such as Veronika. The Blo-No sense of community appeared strong and supported great attitudes, creating a positive cycle of well-being and cohesion. In all, the exciting and flexible opportunities for recreation highlighted the charming-nature of the mid-sized community to support residents of all ages to “live, work, and have fun”.