Key Takeaways

  • After researching ways to broaden their impact on the local community, Groton Senior Center rebranded as Thrive 55+.

  • The senior center was able to expand and rebrand thanks to persistent and outspoken advocacy by local older adults.

  • The recreation-based senior center emphasizes fun and fitness.

As the use of the word "senior" has become a topic of debate nationally, the former Groton Senior Center in Groton, Connecticut, rebranded itself in 2021 and is now known as Thrive 55+. Outspoken advocacy by local older adults has turned a once tiny social and recreation club into an important gathering place, meal hub, and welcoming support center for area veterans and all older adults.

Why was Thrive 55+ established?

The origin story of Thrive 55+ is one seen in communities across the nation:

  1. In the early 1960s, older adults in the community wanted recreation programs. The town of Groton responded by creating a social/recreation club and activities through the parks and recreation department.
  2. In the 1970s, the program had grown quite large, and a very proactive and outspoken group of older adults lobbied for a building of their own. There was a referendum, voters passed the measure, the senior center was built, and a manager was hired.
  3. Demand meant a need for a larger building. Again, older adults mobilized for a senior center expansion. A major renovation provided additions on three sides, creating more program space and modernizing the interior. That expansion took a lot of advocacy, and they didn't get everything they wanted. The original plan was to install a warm water therapy pool. That referendum was defeated by a mere 100 votes. A second plan, without the pool, passed.  

What's in a name? Senior center rebranding drops the word 'senior'

Thrive 55+, formerly known as the Groton Senior Center, rebranded in 2021.

There has been a national debate among senior centers for years about the impact of the word “senior,” and many centers have opted to change their name, hoping the change would remove a barrier to participation. Other centers have opted to retain the word "senior," believing sticking with tradition provides instant recognition to the community. It’s critical that the discussion about the name of the center happens within a larger context of the center’s programs, marketing, ambiance, attitude, and position. While a name change might get people in the door, what happens inside will get them to come back.

Prior to the Groton Senior Center rebranding, the town of Groton retained a consulting firm to conduct market research to understand senior center satisfaction levels, interests and perceptions of participants and non-participants, and to identify areas in need of improvement to provide the best possible service to the community. The study:

  • Used telephone and online surveys and gave insight into programs, services, and communications
  • Provided valuable information to guide program development and outreach
  • Raised the issue of the name as a barrier
  • Was inconclusive on whether there was value in changing the facility name from The Groton Senior Center and gave a recommendation for a deeper dive into that issue

So the center then commissioned a marketing firm to undertake a study specifically looking at whether the word “senior” in the name may affect potential participation and overall perception of programs and services and how they might rebrand. While not unanimous, there emerged a clear imperative to rebrand.

The center went through a comprehensive and consultative process that identified conditions for the rebrand. Any rebrand must: be conflict-free across patent and online searches; support future marketing needs (i.e., website domain, tags for social media); be tested for community adoption. The center went through stages of discovery—identifying keywords and concepts they wanted to convey—with three rounds of branding selection and refinement, and then, once they finalized a name and logo, a testing phase.

The center unveiled the new name, Thrive55+, and added “powered by Groton Senior Center” as a temporary transition. Center Director Mary Jo Riley said they have already seen results, with the rebranding attracting new participants.

I wanted the name to reflect what people do here, not who we serve,” Riley said.

Who goes to Thrive55+? 

Groton is known as the Submarine Capital of the World. The town is home not only of a Naval submarine base, but also General Dynamics Electric Boat, the major contractor for submarine work for the United States Navy. There is a large military family presence and veteran population. The center has an open-door policy with many veterans’ groups, providing space for meetings, hosting memorial events and monuments, and providing support.

A highly valued place in the community, the center had a pre-pandemic attendance of 400 people a day. The diversity of participants represents the diversity in the community—mostly Caucasian, mixed income, and a broad age range. The town has an increasing Asian population,1,2 with a major employer, Pfizer, attracting international researchers. The center is intentional about the inclusion of the LGBTQ population and hosts a deaf older adult group. They are also seeing more homeless older adults at the center. They have partnered with shelter services in a nearby city that sends a worker to the center to provide support. 

What happens at Thrive 55+?

Thrive 55+ provides access to an array of programs, services and activities. As a recreation-based center, they emphasize fitness and fun (a recent Facebook post was gauging interest in 3 on 3 basketball). The center has an impressive fitness center, classes, and activities, including exercise, falls prevention, arts and crafts, performing arts, games, and events. In fact, the center has taken on responsibility for major community events including the town’s holiday kickoff event, the Groton Outdoor Market, and a chili cook off and scarecrow display.

Social and support services are offered by the Groton Health and Human Services Department, with the center providing information and referral and hosting benefits enrollment and SHIP counseling provided by the local area agency on aging.

Food is important at Thrive 55+. The center does not participate in the Title III senior nutrition program but instead offers their own in-house daily hot lunch program. The center's food service staff are trained in healthy cooking options and serve 60-80 people a day through dine-in and take-out. They charge $6 per meal. Participants can pre-pay for meals and often do.

While there is no direct subsidy for those who can’t afford to pay, a special fund can cover the cost. That fund was established when a participant passed away, and his family asked that the center use his balance to pay for meals for others and added to that balance. Over time, other people have contributed to the fund. There is no application or means test, and the center does not market the fund; they simply cover costs when a participant cannot. In addition to the kitchen, the center's coffee shop, the Cove, in offers continental breakfast in the lobby. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the senior center?

Like most senior centers, Thrive55+ closed to in-person participation at the beginning of the pandemic but only missed one day of serving meals. The center continued to provide take out food and started offering delivery for $2 per household, a service they have continued. In addition to serving the older adult population, the center used its infrastructure to become a food hub for the community. They raised funds and provided free meals and food boxes. Additionally, they served the community as a vaccination site. The center resumed its regular schedule of activities on July 1, 2021, applying mitigation strategies in collaboration with public health guidance.  

What does modernizing mean to Thrive 55+?

Like many centers, Thrive55+ has been modernizing since it first opened. Modernizing means staying up with the times, knowing what older adults want, and, importantly, knowing what they want from the center. An example: volunteer engagement. While in the past, the norm was for volunteers to come to the center every day and do whatever work was needed, today's volunteers are looking for episodic opportunities that call on specific skills. The center has embraced the development of Self-Directed Teams to engage volunteers in a meaningful way.

Modernizing also means continuously learning about the community and the people. It means constant innovation and trying new things. It means staying on top of best practices. As a NISC Accredited Center and a long-time member of the National Institute of Senior Centers, Thrive55+ and Riley not only learn, but they put what they learn to exceptional use. They have been recognized several times in the NISC Programs of Excellence Awards.  

What’s next for Thrive 55+?

After 28 years in her leadership role, Riley is thinking about what more she can accomplish before she retires. Thrive55+ clearly will continue to evolve, creating new and innovative opportunities for the people of Groton. The one thing that she would really like to do? Get that therapy pool.  

Is your center considering a name change? Are you committed to keeping “senior” in your center's name? Join the national discussion.  Email us at membership@ncoa.org.

Photo of senior center participants on a kayaking excursion courtesy Thrive 55+.

Sources

1. CT Data Collaborative. Groton, Connecticut. CERC Town Profile. 2016. Found on the internet at https://cms9files.revize.com/grotonct/document_center/Visitors/groton_CERC_Town_Profile_2016.pdf.

2. U.S. Census Bureau. QuckFacts. Groton town, New London County, Connecticut. 2020. Found on the internet at https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/grotontownnewlondoncountyconnecticut/BZA010220