Why summer camp isn’t just for kids anymore
At Camp Meraki, run by Austin-Texas-based organization Aging Is Cool, campers over the age of 60 get to practice archery and do other traditional summer camp activities.
Linda Levy jumped at the opportunity to attend Camp Meraki near Austin, Texas.
As a kid she went to summer camp every year and later she worked as a camp nurse at multiple camps. “That is my happy place,” said the 68-year-old retired nurse who now works in retail.
The program, which was run by Aging Is Cool, an Austin, Texas-based group that organizes social and physical activities for retirees, was like the summer camps she attended as a kid in many ways. There was a set schedule, campers slept in community bunks — although this time with air conditioning — and at meal time “you ate what was in front of you,” Levy said. Along with her husband, Levy participated in everything from canoeing and archery to tie-dyeing t-shirts and making crafts.
Levy’s favorite experiences, though, were the team-building exercises she and her fellow campers participated in. For one, the campers did a show-and-tell, talking about personal mementos and their importance. In another, they were told to stand on a tarp and to figure out a way to flip it over without stepping off it. “One of us was an engineer and he knew exactly how to solve the problem,” Levy said. “There was none of that childhood competition — it was just fun.”
In recent years, the number of camps geared to adults has grown substantially. While there is no specific data regarding camps aimed at people over the age of 50, 25% of the roughly 2,400 camps accredited by the American Camp Association offer adult-only programming. Additionally, 43% of ACA-accredited camps provide family-oriented programming, up from 38% in 2014. (The ACA did not have data from years past regarding adult-only programming.)
The different camps range in price. Camp Meraki’s first session only cost attendees $375, Aging Is Cool co-owner Amy Temperley said, noting that the camps she had studied averaged around $550 for a session. Other camps can be pricier. A six-night stay in the upgraded accommodations at Camp Isabella Freedman, another camp geared for older adults, costs $1,170.
While many of these camps and programs are geared toward adults of all ages, an increasing number focus specifically on older adults. At Camp Bonfire, an adult-only camp located in the Poconos, the average age of attendees is 36, but the program has played host to people in their late 60s and 70s, said Benjamin Camp, the camp’s co-director. “The magic of camp works for 12 year olds and 60 year olds,” he said.
For roughly 12 years, the Lutheran Camping Corporation of Central Pennsylvania has run its “Elder Camp” alongside its summer camp for children at its Nawakwa location roughly 140 miles west of Philadelphia, said Sister Marianne Brock, the organization’s assistant executive director.
The program, which runs for a single week-long session each year, attracts between 15 and 20 adults. This year, the camp will be held July 9-15. “Half of our elder campers were campers here back in the days of black-and-white photographs,” Brock said. “So we had a built-in audience of adults who wanted to come to camp.”
Some of these summer camp programs targeting older adults are run by kid’s camps in conjunction with their youth programming, but others are organized by senior groups across the country during less busy times of the year.
urtesy Amy s Cool
Campers get to participate in canoeing at Camp Meraki.
Last year, Boomers Together, a community group for older adults in Chattanooga, Tenn., teamed up with the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga to run an adult summer camp. The program was held for campers ages 40 and up at Camp Ocoee, which normally plays host to boys and girls from 7 to 17 years of age.
“I kept hearing about people whose grandkids were going to camp and thought, ‘Let’s throw it out there to people and see if they’ll come,’” said Boomers Together founder Joy Krause. “We did not know if we’d get one person to sign up … We sold out in almost two weeks.”
Other senior- and baby boomer-oriented camps have had similar success. Aging Is Cool held its first session of Camp Meraki this summer for people over the age of 60. Since that first iteration, Temperley said they have already planned a second iteration for October.
She is also working with former colleagues to begin running senior-oriented camps outside of Texas next spring. “We’ve just been overwhelmed by people reaching out and asking when they can come to camp,” Temperley said.
Much of that success comes from a desire to connect with the past. Most adult camps boast activities reminiscent of the summer camps of yore: Canoeing around a lake, hiking nature trails, making arts and crafts and singing songs around the campfire. “Nostalgia is a big part of it,” Krause said.
Attending summer camp later in life isn’t just about participating in childhood activities. For Gloria Lloyd, a retired public school teacher who attended Camp Ocoee with Boomers Together, going to summer camp was also an opportunity to cross an item off her bucket list.
Gloria Lloyd, then 69, attempts the high ropes course while attending a camp session for older adults at Camp Ocoee in Tennessee.
Years earlier while on a field trip with at-risk girls she had turned down the opportunity to try a high ropes course — a sort of obstacle course built from ropes and wire that is suspended many feet above the ground. Later in life, she came to regret the choice not to give the high ropes course a try and jumped at the opportunity to do it at Camp Ocoee last summer. “I cannot describe the deep satisfaction I had for accomplishing it,” Lloyd said. “I faced my fear and I made it – and I was 69 years old at the time.”
Of course, other aspects of the summer camp experience must be tailored to an older, more sophisticated crowd. The accommodations are typically nicer — though some camps do still have bunk beds. The Lutheran Camping Corporation of Central Pennsylvania’s Elder Camp organizes field trips for participants to local vineyards and farmers’ markets, Brock said.
Campers are also given a lot more freedom when it comes to everything from the activities they participate in to when they go to bed at night. And counselors are there to provide support, not to watch out for any, ahem, canoodling among campers.
Running a camp for a more mature crowd does entail accommodating people’s various physical limitations. At Camp Meraki, for instance, one attendee had Parkinson’s disease and used a walker. As a result, Temperley said she shuttled him from activity to activity across the camp in her car. “But he canoed and did everything everyone else did,” she said.
And for many of those who take part in these programs, it’s about forming friendships and getting to know new people — experiences that can prove challenging for people who have entered retirement. “We live in a culture where we’ve become further and further away from people,” Brock said.
The opportunity to make new friends especially rang true for Levy, who recently moved to Texas to be closer to family. “We made friends quickly — the camp made it really easy to do,” she said.
Some campers seek the experience out to heal after the loss of a loved one; others hope to escape the busy world for some peace. Whatever the reason, the campers share something in common: a sense of fun. “There are a lot of changes for people over 50,” Krause said. “We’re not over the hill — we still have this adventurous spirit.”