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Employment Opportunities in Senior Living

You’re passionate about the value of fitness in a wellness lifestyle. You’ve educated yourself on exercise science and leadership. Perhaps your training is in yoga, Pilates, tai chi or another approach. Now you’re ready to help others gain the benefits of your knowledge. It’s time to get to work.

Your job picture is bright: opportunities for personal trainers and fitness instructors are expected to grow much faster than the average, thanks primarily to aging Baby Boomers (BLS 2010). The Boomers, aged 45–65 this year, believe in active aging, and their rising numbers bode well for fitness professionals.

The United States had 55.1 million people aged 50–64 in 2008. By 2030, the number is expected to hit 61.4 million (U.S. Census 2010). By then, nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. will be 65 or older (Vincent & Velkoff 2010).

Life spans are lengthening too. In the United States, people who were 65 in 2006 could expect to live 18.5 years (Arias 2010). In Canada, they could look forward to another 19.8 years (Statistics Canada 2010). The older population has many years left, and attitudes toward the final third of life are shifting.

Baby Boomers and their elders aim to live life to the fullest. For example, one study of 800 people turning 60 found they were substantially satisfied with their lives and optimistic about the future (Gordon, Keegan & Fisher 2006). What life changes were on their minds? They wanted to take better care of their physical health (87%), spend more time on their interests and hobbies (72%) and volunteer more (47%) (Gordon, Keegan & Fisher 2006). This study reflects others that likewise tell us our aging population has no intention of staying put in a rocking chair.

Meeting Them Where They Live

Maintaining an active lifestyle has emerged as a primary reason why older adults choose to live in “age-qualified” housing, which means at least one resident must be 55 years or older (some allow 50 or older). Age-qualified housing includes retirement communities and senior apartment buildings and condominiums. This article will focus on retirement communities, since these businesses have the greatest potential for fitness professionals.

Many retirement communities are developing (or already have developed) wellness programs. Those that have none today will need to build them in the future: the marketplace will demand it (Ryan 2010).

A 2010 survey conducted by the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) found that 74% of retirement communities had a formal wellness program, while 23% had activities but no formal program. Of the survey respondents, 98% offered physical activity, 95% provided social activities and 93% provided intellectual activities (ICAA 2010). These retirement communities offered exercise classes indoors (98%), outdoors (44%) and in the water (59%) (ICAA 2010). Clearly, physical and mental health activities are available in forward-thinking communities.

The Jobs (and Benefits) Outlook

Are you working part-time with no health or retirement benefits, like so many of your fellow trainers? If so, consider the difference at retirement communities: most hire full-time staff for their fitness/wellness programs, paying salaries and benefits.

These are the most common titles and departments in retirement communities:

  • wellness director, coordinator, assistant (sometimes a nurse or the fitness director)
  • fitness director, coordinator, assistant
  • activities director, coordinator, assistant (also called lifestyle director, engagement director, social director and similar titles)

The 2011 ICAA Salary & Benefits Survey found wellness directors earned a median annual income of $48,000 (all employees, 90% working 40 or more hours a week), and fitness directors earned a median $47,843 (all employees, 79% working 40 or more hours a week) (ICAA 2011). The most frequently reported benefits offered to employees were health and dental insurance, paid vacation and sick leave, life insurance and retirement plans (ICAA 2011).

These organizations hire additional part-time staff and contractors to help administer a large program and to teach exercise, and also hire instructors in specialties such as yoga, tai chi, fall prevention and management, and exercise for arthritis. Other job categories include personal trainers, massage therapists, music and art therapists, and occupational and physical therapists.

Are you a fitness entrepreneur? Some organizations outsource their senior wellness programs, just as corporations outsource their employee programs.

If you haven’t heard of the opportunities in retirement communities, it’s not surprising. Many have made the commitment to wellness only in the past 5–6 years (ICAA 2010).

Just last year, 72% of 286 surveyed retirement community staff said they planned to add more wellness activities, classes or programs in the next 2 years. And 24% planned to increase the number of wellness staff (ICAA 2010).

A Quick Tour of Senior Living

Unlike a fitness-only business, a retirement community (also called senior living) is a real-estate business with services. The primary business objective is maximizing occupancy—the percentage of apartments, condos or homes occupied by residents paying for the property and services.

Lifestyle opportunities and services for residents are a driving force in occupancy. Once the bricks-and-mortar component is built, it is built. The flexibility lies in the “amenities,” which include fitness, dining, social activities and maintenance services. Other amenities include trails, pools, clubhouses and similar recreational spaces. This is particularly true of newer retirement communities that are either home to younger older adults or are positioning to attract these residents.

Residents pay according their “level of living,” a concept easy to grasp for personal trainers or group fitness instructors. After all, you are likely in the habit of thinking about clients in terms of their functional ability. How much strength, flexibility and dexterity do they have? How do they walk, reach or manage a chronic condition? As you know, functional ability is a far more accurate “level of living” gauge than chronological age, and funtional ability is what retirement communities use to structure their services. These are the categories:

Active Adult or Lifestyle

Active-adult or lifestyle communities offer homes and recreational activities to people who live independently. These age-qualified developments have no supportive services (such as meals or medical or dementia care). They are most likely to hire an activities director. You may find opportunities here by convincing management that residents will pay for fitness services, which in turn will help attract or retain residents.

Independent Living

Independent-living communities provide services such as a dining room, housekeeping, linen service, transportation, and social and recreational activities. These communities are aimed at adults who can live on their own, but who enjoy having these services available. Many independent-living communities have a fitness program.

Assisted Living

Assisted-living communities offer living quarters and personal care to help residents with activities of daily living, such as meal preparation, dressing and bathing, and medication management. Many assisted-living facilities are reinventing themselves to provide higher-standard living quarters and wider recreation opportunities for residents. Interviews with Baby Boomers, average age 58.5 years, who helped another person select an assisted-living residence revealed that the features the Baby Boomers would insist on for themselves were a great location, an exercise/fitness facility, exercise classes, social events/trips and the allowance of pets, among other items (Lempert 2010).

Continuing Care

Continuing-care retirement communities (CCRCs) provide residences and services for independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing care. In this type of retirement community, residents are guaranteed access to more assistance or medical care if they require it. In addition to offering dining, housekeeping and similar services, CCRCs provide many educational and recreational activities. In ICAA’s market surveys, CCRCs have the highest prevalence of wellness programs, facilities and wellness staffing.

Older adults’ choice of residence depends on their level of function, financial capability, level of family or community support, personal and business interests, and social connections.

What Is a Wellness Program?

A retirement community wellness program may include these dimensions:

  • emotional (peer counseling, stress management, humor/ laughter)
  • environmental (meditation gardens, walking trails)
  • intellectual (arts & crafts, journaling, games/puzzles)
  • physical (exercise, nutrition, sleep, disease management)
  • social (clubs, dancing, group activities)
  • spiritual (faith-based, personal meditation/reflection, mindful exercise)
  • vocational (paid work, volunteer work, skills classes)
The Wellness Staff

Generally, people who work in wellness programs are assigned to these areas:


Activities staff is responsible for social events, games, trips, arts and crafts, college classes, and health education and maintenance programs, and sometimes for brain fitness and the computer room. Activities staff may be responsible for teaching exercise if the activities director or coordinator has a background in fitness, or if the retirement community’s leadership believes that basic movement is all the residents want or need. An activities director may hire fitness instructors to lead the physical activity component of the program.


Fitness staff is responsible for the physical activity programming for all levels of living—from very fit to frail—as well as equipment, fitness center management and often the aquatics program and pool. The fitness director might also conduct health education programs. Staff members often lead group classes and offer personal training sessions.

The wellness department may be responsible for fitness alone, or it may manage activities and fitness. In some retirement communities, wellness is responsible for fitness, activities and residents’ transportation; in others, wellness is a combination of fitness, activities and physical and occupational therapy.

Most full- or part-time wellness employees are well educated, with 23% holding a master’s degree. Most have experience working with older adults and/or experience working in a specialty area (ICAA 2008).

At Senior Lifestyle Corporation, which has more than 50 communities in 13 states, staffing depends on the size of the community and the population, says Terry Fay, corporate director of resident programs. The program (or activities) director at each community may be responsible for fitness and may teach classes, or the retirement community might hire an hourly staff of independent contractors. Other communities hire a fitness professional for that function.

Atria Senior Living Group, which has 124 retirement communities, is similarly structured. All have an “engage life director,” and some have a fitness director. “Our goal is to hire engage life directors who are experienced in both fitness and recreation to lead active-aging programming,” says Stacey Belt, national engage life program director. “At times, we may hire outside contracted fitness staff to assist in utilization of physical fitness programming who may be trained in a specific area (yoga, tai chi, Zumba®, etc.).”

At Country Meadows Retirement Communities, based in Hershey, Pennsylvania, leadership decided to separate the fitness and activities functions 5 years ago, says Kim Eichinger, executive director of fitness. Eichinger initially began to train the activities staff to teach exercise, but quickly realized the group had so many responsibilities that it could not give exercise the attention it merited.

Today, Country Meadows has a fitness program at each of its 10 campuses. Larger campuses have a full-time fitness director who is responsible for services in multiple levels of living. Midsize campuses have a fitness coordinator who may be supported by a part-time associate.

Sharing the Workload

In a retirement community, no staffer is an island. Staff members are expected to work with their peers for the benefit of residents. Departments jointly plan programs and share budgets to make the most of their resources.

For example, at each of the four Parc Communities around Atlanta, fitness/wellness staff teaches exercise and brain-fitness classes, a function separate from the activities department. “However, we have expanded into the activities departments to help us with wellness-type outings, large communitywide themed events and health fairs,” says Angela Butler-Hackett, corporate wellness director.

A stand-alone fitness/wellness center in a retirement community may open its doors to the larger community, selling memberships to generate revenue. In the Touchmark Retirement Communities, for instance, where all 11 communities have a fitness program, three contain full-service fitness clubs that are open to members from the surrounding community. Marge Coalman, EdD, vice president of wellness and programs at Touchmark, says that at all locations, “we hire both full-time and part-time instructors regularly. As our club enrollment expands, our staffing needs increase.”

The fitness/wellness center may be available to employees, and the wellness director responsible for employee wellness. Retirement communities with services tend to have large staffs, and employee wellness is important for the workforce. Over half of retirement communities provide employees access to the wellness center (ICAA 2010).

Employment Qualifications

The desired job candidate for a wellness position is a friendly person who enjoys older people and appreciates the challenge of inspiring fitness. Organizations are looking for personality and skills and may be open to training people with the right personality for the organization.

What does it take to work with older adults? According to 198 people responsible for hiring, training or approving professional development (ICAA 2007), these are the three most important skills for wellness workers:

  • ability to communicate with clients; customer service (67%)
  • knowledge of aging-adult physiology and chronic conditions (57%)
  • motivation techniques and behavior change for older adults (51%)

Positive attitude is mandatory, confirms Ginger Anzalone, vice president of the facilities division for Vesta Property Services Inc., which manages active-adult retirement communities and other types of businesses. Anzalone is general manager of the large Sun City Center retirement facility near Tampa, Florida, where three generations (Baby Boomers through nonagenarians) benefit from a fitness program that offers 50 classes a week. The two dedicated full-time fitness staff members are augmented from a pool of 10 instructors who are paid by the class for specialty classes such as yoga, aquatics, Pilates, Zumba and BODYPUMP™.

Anzalone, a former trainer, looks for certified instructors with the right experience and outlook. “We are service providers. Vesta staff does not say, ‘It’s not my job.’ We are looking for that Disney World® attitude. If someone asks where the craft room is, you don’t point—you walk with them. If you are approachable and friendly and can laugh and roll with the challenges of active-adult communities, it’s a good career move.”

When hiring, Eichinger looks for passion and personality along with experience and certification. “We are looking for a person who is comfortable in a group setting as well as in a one-on-one setting, and is comfortable providing services to all levels of care.” Job candidates are invited to shadow a successful director. “We can see if they feel comfortable teaching someone in a wheelchair, if they say hello to passersby or reach out to touch the hand of a resident when introduced.”

Eichinger says instructors must be very compassionate and able to encourage somebody who has never exercised before, or who doesn’t feel well or is depressed: “[They need] to be able to translate the components of fitness into something with benefits that residents want to do.”

For example, the Life Skills Relay translates functional movements into a fun game. Staff members string a clothesline, and residents pin up as many napkins as they can with wooden pins. “It’s lateral movement as they move along the clothesline, and it requires fine motor skills for the fingers and gross motor skills for the balancing and sidestepping,” Eichinger says. “The relay brings back memories of the past, it’s fun, and it’s competitive. You can’t believe some of the stories that come out.”

The qualifications Coalman seeks are “experience with older adults and a certification from an appropriate certifying organization—quite often ACE or ACSM is desired. For Pilates, Zumba Gold, etc., the certifications come from those certifying bodies.”

Fay finds that with so many Senior Lifestyle communities across the country, staff members come from diverse backgrounds, including kinesiology or exercise science, preventive or rehabilitative exercise, physical therapy and occupational therapy, and training and experience in yoga, tai chi, qigong and dance.

“All candidates must have experience working with older adults,” Fay says. “They have to be able to modify and adapt for a variety of levels of functioning. They need to be knowledgeable about the aging process and the special situations they will encounter.”

Residents may be physically frail, moderately active or senior athletes at the top of their age categories. Trainers need to be aware of musculoskeletal issues and chronic conditions like diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, obesity and dementia. Wellness workers are constantly looking for ways to maintain the interest of high-performing residents and to increase the functional ability of low-performing people.

Managers at the communities cited in this article are willing to invest in professional development of their staff. As Coalman puts it, “We do hire people with specialty certification or sometimes subcontract with them. Quite often we offer our own team members specialty certifications as part of their professional growth and development. Aquatic certifications are required for most aquatic classes. Another group of specialty instructors come from the Parkinson’s, arthritis and osteoporosis certification courses.”

Professional Growth

Retirement communities offer the opportunity to expand the fitness role into all areas of wellness or to move into management positions.

These communities hire professionals in dining/nutrition, medical services, social services and property management. Administrators oversee programs and services called “resident life” or something similar. The diversity of services means retirement communities can offer lateral movement for interested and qualified employees—for example from fitness into activities or resident life.

There is also the potential to move up into management. Qualified fitness and wellness directors can manage programs at multiple locations. Some fitness and wellness directors have also become department heads overseeing all of resident life, and some have become executive directors.

Entrepreneurs, take note: When Anzalone arrived at Sun City Center retirement community in Florida 14 years ago, she had previously been teaching an aerobics class in the spare dining room of a country club. She took a risk and approached Sun City Center with a proposal for a senior fitness program. The manager accepted it, and today the stand-alone fitness center logs 115,000 resident visits a year.

Anzalone says developers of active-adult retirement communities see the need for fitness spaces but don’t necessarily want to manage them. So if you write a solid plan, launch a program and get the participation numbers, then participants and the company will see the benefits.

Is This a Good Career Move?

The older population is growing. Retirement communities have been stable during the recent economic downturn. There is a strong business case for retirement communities to invest in wellness because of the marketing value and savings in healthcare costs. “Quality of life” is part of the mission of most retirement communities—and older adults are demanding it.

“Working in a retirement community is an excellent career move,” says Fay. “You get to use your education and experience in a way that brings about positive change and lifestyle support to some pretty special people. It’s important work. If you choose to become more involved with the overall activity program, then you can often bring in your [other] skills, interests and hobbies by creating additional programs to share with residents. So you get to interact with the residents in [more] ways, and you’re not confined to the fitness program.”

To learn what types of jobs are available in wellness, visit the ICAA Career Center (see the Resources sidebar). On the ICAA site, you’ll also see the ICAA Internship Directory. To find out if you wish to work with older adults, you might volunteer at a local senior or retirement community center, or offer to present a set program (e.g., for 6–8 weeks).

You may discover that working with this population is your niche. “The industry is constantly growing, but more importantly, it is work with meaning,” says Martha McClung, director of vibrant living at Brightview Senior Living. “I had no idea how rewarding this career would be when I made a switch over 2 years ago. We have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives every day.”

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