By Rebecca Rose
Harker Heights Herald
Harker Heights senior citizens are heading off to Greece. That is, if they're not too tired after walking from Galveston to Houston.
The Arm Chair Travelers of the 55 and Up Program at the Senior Recreation Center "traveled" to China last month, watching the film "Up the Yangtze" and dining on Chinese food. This month, the group will "visit" Greece, at 11 a.m., and probably have enough time left over in the day to finish their walk across Texas.
The seniors participating in the "Waltz Across Texas" are racking up miles, 323 to be exact, by line dancing twice a week at the Recreation Center. The event is part of a challenge to see how long it will take them to "walk" from Galveston to El Paso.
"We're traveling the world, and we don't even have to leave Harker Heights," quipped Athalie Southard, instructor for the line-dancing classes.
As the country recognizes Older Americans Month in May, seniors in Harker Heights are taking advantage of a wide variety of programs and events, aimed to challenge them physically and mentally, and create new social connections.
Harker Heights is home to a growing senior citizen community, with more and more retirees from the military and other professions opting to make the area their permanent home.
"They do not sit still very long. It's not a group that sits around and plays dominoes." said Joyce Mayer, 55 and Up program coordinator.
Mayer has been working with the city of Harker Heights since 1989 to build their senior recreation program. What started as a few programs offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays has now expanded into a full calendar of events, offered five days a week, and some weekends.
"There's a lot of research about life extension, and the importance of physical fitness, mental fitness and social interaction," she said. "Taking part in groups and participating in active activities extends life significantly."
One of the center's biggest activities is line dancing. "We probably have over 50 people," said Mayer. "On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they start coming in about 8:30 in the morning to dance until 11:30."
Last month, Mayer challenged the group to "Waltz Across Texas," and accumulate 900 miles.
"They keep a chart with the number of hours," said Mayer. "Some of them dance five days a week."
Based on a chart from Texas A&M, 30 minutes of line dancing equals two miles. In addition to line dancing, miles can be accumulated through other events at the center or through simple household chores such as vacuuming, said Mayer.
Southard said that despite coming from different backgrounds, "we are really forming great friendships."
"We have a good group, we go to Georgetown once a month, for line dancing."
A lot of the line dancers are former military, spouses or widowers looking to make new friends, said Southard.
Mayer said about 85 percent of participants from Harker Heights are either retired military or spouse. "If a retired military person does not go on to a second career, sometimes they can be at a loss for things to do," she said. "They're looking for something new to do."
"That's the reason why this program exists. Before long, they get involved with activities. Then they're meeting at home, going to lunch, movies."
Mayer said widowers were especially challenging to engage.
"That is a really difficult group to tap. It's difficult for a man who has lost a spouse to get back into socializing with women and other couples. It's just hard."
The program also offers numerous classes, including quilting, stamping and watercolor painting. Along with the Arm Chair Travellers "outings," the center offers real-world outings, including field trips to zoos and other attractions.
This Sunday, the center will host a Pickle Ball play day, from 1 to 4:30 p.m.
Mayer, who described the popular game as a cross between ping pong, badminton and volleyball, said anyone is invited to play or learn more about how to play.
A full schedule of classes and events in the 55 and Up program can be found online at http://www.ci.harker-heights.tx.us through the Parks and Recreation department.
Annual registration is $8 per person or $10 for two people at the same address. Most activities are at no cost, and take place at the Recreation Center located at 307 Miller's Crossing.
Contact Rebecca Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7548. Follow her on Twitter at KDHheights.