Photo by Peggy Sturdivant

At Large in Ballard: Unlaced Sneakers

By Peggy Sturdivant

It was my friend Rita Bresnahan who first introduced me to the term Silver Sneakers. She was only an occasional drop-in at MJ’s yoga class at Ballard Health Club because she was a Silver Sneakers member at Olympic Athletic Club on Leary Way. As a Group Health member she paid no fees.

Over the years in Ballard, and with friends like Rita, now 80 years old, I’ve realized this generation of seniors is not at all like that of my grandparent’s generation. When I was young my Grandpa-Next-Door still brought the car around for his wife, pulling it up to the side door. She wore a big apron, lots of face powder and clip-on earrings. She would never have been in the hot tub in the Women’s Locker Room at the Olympic Athletic Club. It’s possible she never even heard of a hot tub. In her entire life she never wore sneakers.

For this generation of active seniors there are a lot of sneaker wearers. Silver Sneakers is a trademarked program of Healthways, a private “well being improvement” company based in Tennessee. Over the last 16 years they have partnered with health insurers and facilities to offer membership for those over 65 with a Medicare Supplement. The seniors have been able to have membership at 1000s of health facilities, from the YMCA to private clubs such as Olympic Athletic Club, and national chains such as Curves.

Then about three weeks ago I went into my Thursday morning yoga at Ballard Health Club and there was someone in my spot. Of course we don’t really have spots, in the way that street parking in front of our house doesn’t really belong to us, but you notice when a car you don’t recognize is parked there.

However I recognized the woman as a local poet, but clearly a newcomer to the club. “Did you just join?” I asked.

She nodded over at another woman, also encountering the challenge of parking her mat in one of MJ’s classes. “We’re refugees,” she said. “Olympic Athletic Club discontinued the Silver Sneakers program.”

I knew enough seniors in the program at Olympic Athletic Club to know this was a game changer. Yet more change in Ballard, particularly for seniors. Some of them have been OAC members for over ten years. I was immediately curious. I had noticed that Ballard Health Club and Fitness 19 on 24th had just put out the welcome mat for Silver Sneaker members, even though what they are able to provide was not as comprehensive as at Olympic.

I learned that Olympic Athletic Club and Healthways both notified participating OAC seniors at the beginning of the year that the program would no longer be offered at the club after February. The OAC cited the sustainability of the program. The Healthways letter referred to OAC concerns over capacity.

This was like a puzzle, was it sustainability (i.e., cost) or capacity? Those second-guessing the change were cynically inclined to suggest that OAC didn’t want Medicare seniors since its recent expansion and undeniable elegance. Where was the truth? If the program wasn’t “sustainable” for OAC why would Ballard Health Club welcome it? But mostly, what about my good friend Rita Bresnahan who flat out that misses the Olympic Athletic Club terribly, but can’t afford their discounted senior membership at $55/month.

I talked with Mark Durall, OAC’s longtime General Manager. He explained problems started several years ago when Seattle Athletic Club discontinued their relationship with Healthways and OAC took in at least 100 displaced Silver Sneakers members from them. “We love our seniors,” he said, “and thought it was a good thing for the community.” He said that was why OAC was willing to take a loss on the program for years. Then last December almost all the YMCAs in the region stopped offering Silver Sneakers, likewise citing sustainability, meaning it was costing them more than they were reimbursed.

The Y’s decision led 30-40 new applicants per day to Olympic Athletic Club. “Sometimes there were so many people on the tour that folks in the back couldn’t even hear,” Durall told me. So he said it did become a capacity problem. However OAC has created a new membership option for seniors, $55/month or $100 for a couple, without an initial fee. “We love our seniors,” he repeated. “We have some very sophisticated distinguished amazing seniors.”

I asked Pat Gilbrough the new Ballard Health Club owner and a Silver Sneakers facility as of April 1st whether they had capacity or sustainability concerns. “We do get reimbursed by the Silver Sneakers program based on visits of - so we are incentivized to get them in the gym and/or classes - which is exactly what we should be focusing on anyway,” Gilbrough said. He added, “Our overhead is a bit lower.” Admittedly they don’t have all of the amenities of Olympic Athletic Club, no racquetball courts, pools, hut tubs or childcare, but lower overhead. They are adding classes for Silver Sneakers members. Both Gilbrough and BHC Class Director Karen Gamble see offering Silver Sneakers as an opportunity, “It was a no-brainer for us.”

Looking on-line at the virtual tour of Olympic Athletic Club, with its sauna room and chandeliers in reception I can see why the seniors who can’t afford membership without Silver Sneakers feel like outcasts. It’s particularly too bad the exile can be traced back to the terms of a private Tennessee company named one of America’s fastest growing in 2008, but at least there’s no one in Ballard to blame.

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.