The Unlikely Story of Senior Planet

In the early days of OATS, we used to take pictures of some of the locations where senior services were delivered around the country because, frankly, they looked like prisons.  Concrete bunker-style buildings with few windows, bulletproof glass and barbed wire perimeters…how could anyone have a joyous experience in one of these places?  What were we saying about our society’s views on aging?

For nearly ten years, we delivered programs at over 100 partner locations and worked with local allies to improve conditions, creating more than 30 new computer labs, sprucing up facilities, and helping to increase enrollment at the neighborhood centers.  Then in 2013, we had a breakthrough year:  With support from the city and national governments, along with a host of corporate and philanthropic funders, OATS had the opportunity to launch our first-ever Senior Planet Center.

From the start, we were determined to get things right.  We used a “design thinking” approach to ask older adults what they wanted and create a world-class experience.  When selecting a location for the center, we limited our search to locations that were centrally located and easy to access by public transit.  Our executive director insisted on “no elevators,” since we didn’t want the visitor experience marred by security procedures that we couldn’t control, and we wanted maximum visibility on the street to influence public awareness.  We looked at over 70 locations before settling on the final site at 127 West 25th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.  We hired an architect from a renowned firm and spent months creating a beautiful space using a “design/build” method that maximized our ability to control costs and quality.

Inspired by the principles of great design and a faith in the limitless potential of older adults to change their lives and communities, Senior Planet opened on a cold January day in 2013  and immediately became a home for people over 60 who like the idea of “aging with attitude.” The Center soon became a hub of activity, with over 15,000 visitors the first year and so much press coverage that OATS won a PR Week award (kind of like an Oscar for public relations)

We outfitted Senior Planet with state-of-art-technology for mobile devices, internet access, collaborative training, digital photography, special events, lectures and screenings. In addition to technology solutions labs, Senior Planet houses public access computer stations, communal project work tables, video chat nooks, “living room” areas furnished with couches and gaming systems. The idea was to make Senior Planet a high-tech “home” where seniors could feel welcome, comfortable and absolutely unintimidated. A place where new futures could be safely launched. 

Since then, we’ve created Senior Planet Centers in the North Country, New York State (where our  “Tech Spot” technology console received a patent designation); Denver, Colorado; and Palo Alto, California. OATS-run centers and courses are free to participants (some partner sites may charge for courses when that is the standard practice in their locations).

Thousands and thousands of Senior Planet members have earned their technology wings at Senior Planet. But mastering technology–as useful as that may be–is not our ultimate goal.  Our not-so-secret agenda is to help older adults use technology to transform themselves and their communities in positive ways.  Senior Planet is dedicated to changing the way we age as a necessary step to creating a more vibrant, inclusive, just, and caring society for all generations.