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Older adults find enrichment, nostalgia in summer camps

| Friday, June 28, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Mark Brewer | Tribune-Review
Summer camp can provide a touch of childhood nostalgia with the challenge of learning a new skill, such as quilting or ballroom dancing.

There's no bunk check or compulsory wallet-making in arts and crafts. And these happy campers may have graying hair, a mortgage and a prescription for Lipitor.

As summer rolls out its green carpet, Baby Boomers and older adults are flocking to woods, lake sides and college campuses to answer the opening roll call of sleepover camp. But instead of campfires, canoeing and color wars, their time could be spent learning photography, wine-making, snowboarding or playing the dulcimer.

Say “adult camp” and many are likely to think of sports fantasy camp, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Camp that is held every winter in Bradenton, Fla. But the diversity of camp offerings has expanded to include everything from archaeology to Zen.

The nation's senior population is growing, with many maintaining their vigor well into their 80s. Camp can provide a touch of childhood nostalgia with the challenge of learning a new skill, such as quilting or ballroom dancing. Some empty-nesters may want to reconnect with an old passion, such as French cuisine or mountain biking.

Michael Chaveau is field office executive director of the American Camp Association in Philadelphia. The office serves child and adult camps in Delaware and Pennsylvania. Nationally, they have about 200 member camps with adult programs, he says.

The social atmosphere of camps can provide a respite from the electronic overload of smartphones, texts and emails, says ACA program associate Ellen Warren. Unlike a spa or resort, adult camps often feature classes, communal dining and other group activities.

Last summer, a million adults went to camp, she says.

“I think what we're seeing now is an extension of that concept where couples or friends or even individuals go someplace to do something they enjoy,” Warren says. “In the process, hopefully, they're turning off their cell phones and turning off their laptops and not bringing their iPads and enjoying human interaction.”

Home away from home

As a girl growing up in Venetia near McMurray, Susan Dollmont attended Girl Scout camp. In high school, she packed her saxophone and sunscreen and headed off to band camp. For the past 20 years, she has honed her skills as an alto sax player at the Summer Saxophone & Woodwind Camp at California University of Pennsylvania.

Dollmont, a professional musician, still bunks with the woman she met at her first camp 20 years ago.

Attendees take classes in improvisation and big-band section playing. Master classes are conducted by guest artists such as tenor-sax player Ernie Watts and alto-bop legend Phil Woods. This year's guest artist is noted jazz saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Peplowski.

“You get away from your everyday life,” says Dollmont, who makes the annual trip from her home in Florida. “Because you actually stay there. That's part of the experience. You stay overnight. You do feel like a kid again. You do feel younger. I always hated to leave. You get to step out of what you do the whole year and have a week to yourself.”

Dollmont no longer packs her swimsuit, but she enjoys going out to dinner or jamming with old friends and new. On the final day, campers don their camp T-shirts and gather for a group photo.

The website lists hundreds of adult camps from coast to coast.

Visitors to their site will find sports and fantasy camps as well as those devoted to humanitarian adventures, volunteer vacations, adventure and extreme sports, academics, bridge and yoga.

Choose from Bull Riding Camp at the Ranch at Jesus Canyon near the Mojave Desert in California, or turn amps to 11 at the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp in New York, N.Y.

Too strenuous? Take a sewing vacation at Vashon Island Sewing Retreat on Vashon Island, Wash.

“Ten years ago compared to now, people are way more interested in expanding their learning opportunities, and when they go on vacation, they tend to find activities where they can enrich themselves,” says Nicola Marconato, director of sales and operations for Internet Brands, who own

Social experiences

The definition of adult summer camp is broad — it could range from a half-day fishing or guitar or golf class to overnight weeklong excursions.

Some establishments offer nostalgia combined with modern amenities. Club Getaway, located in the Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut, offers weekend camps with a range of optional activities such as yoga, hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. They offer late-night campfires and color wars. Their “rustic luxury” combines rough-hewn North Woods cabins with air conditioning and heat.

The communal element — campers eat meals together — helps differentiate Club Getaway from a resort or spa, owner David Schreiber says. There's also a social agenda, which can include karaoke singing by their 40-acre lake or a Saturday night dance.

“If you're going to a spa, you can check in anytime. There's no clear-cut beginning or end,” he says.

Weekends generally have a theme, such as sports and adventure. They will feature a Baby Boomer weekend August 2 through 4. Nearly 200 of the 280 spots available have been filled.

“It consists of guests who are single, looking to find a partner, or couples looking to re-create the camp experience,” Schreiber says.

No prerequisites

Gerald and Karen Ready of Indiana are retired professors at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Later this summer, they'll head to the Encore Choral, Movement and Theatre Institute at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. The camp, which runs from Aug. 25 to 30, features three separate weeklong singing, dancing and theater programs.

The camps are organized by Encore Creativity for Older Adults, a Maryland-based nonprofit organization. President Jeanne Kelly, a former opera singer, founded Encore in 2007 to create an accessible artistic environment for older adults. The minimum age to attend camp is 55. No auditions are required, and applicants can participate regardless of experience or ability. Guests can count on an atmosphere that combines rigorous rehearsals with socializing and downtime.

“They have choral singing, they have a dance component and also acting,” says Gerald Ready, 83. “Both my wife and I are singers, so we started out there doing the singing. She's still doing that. But last summer, I decided to switch over to acting.”

The couple has attended other camps, including a choral camp at Bemidji State University in Minnesota and a 4-H nature camp in the Cumberland Lake area of Kentucky.

“It's a relaxed, rustic atmosphere,” Gerald Ready says. “You're further off, away from everyday life. You're removed from the real world. You're spending a lot of time outdoors. It's the group activity. I think that's all part of the camp atmosphere. You get together in the evenings and sometimes do other things.”

At the end of the week, participants in choral, movement and theater programs combine forces in a production o f “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Encore spokesperson Jennifer Heinz says the “institutes” combine the rigor of a conservatory with the relaxation of a summer getaway.

“You don't have to audition to attend,” Heinz says. “As Jeanne would say, anyone can sing. But there is a presumption that you're willing to put in the time and some effort to make for a great performance at the end of the week.”

William Loeffler is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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