Positive Aging: Talk to the Animals

It’s not often a zoo features human cage-dancing, a cross-dressing fortune teller, sake bombs at the top of a slide, and a zookeeper who doubles as a DJ from the famed Coachella Music Festival.

Yet behind this concept at San Jose’s Happy Hollow Park and Zoo is an excitable woman with a singular and highly original vernacular.

“It’s already pre-built for awesomeness,” says Heather Lerner, head of the zoo’s foundation, who during a tour points out the zoo’s features – and health benefits. “I mean, can’t we just play with goats first?”

Lerner has helped shepherd the resurrection of the tiny yet beloved zoo that today includes an intriguing outreach program for older adults: the Senior Safari Walkabout.

For each of the past two years, Happy Hollow has hosted six Senior Safaris for adults 50 and over. Once a month, seniors visit the 16-acre park free of children to explore its humble environs, meet the animals, and participate in physical activities ranging from tai chi to Zumba.

At the season’s final Senior Safari in September, the park buzzes with elderly couples and busloads of older adults from nearby retirement facilities. The energy is palpable, spurred by a wide variety of physical and artistic activities that include photography and sketching.

“I believe that engaging in youthful, fun activities is the antidote for aging,” says Lerner.

She first proposed the Senior Safari idea to skeptical park officials three years ago, eventually securing support from Kaiser Permanente, who funds the effort with one stipulation: get physical.

Seniors who join the Senior Safari are often sidetracked to explore new exercises such as qigong, a martial-arts based series of slow movements designed for optimal health. Nearby, an expert hula-hoop instructor twirls two hoops on each arm – in opposing directions – and proclaims hooping the ideal brain exercise.

The vibe is unabashedly energetic. A volunteer docent guides a small group of elders from one animal exhibit to another with shameless humor.

“Our theme for this morning is ‘movement,’” she says. “So we can prance to our next exhibit.” And prance she does.

Lerner says one of the challenges of getting older adults to visit the zoo was the constant presence of active children, who can prove dangerous to frail seniors.

She summarizes the prevailing attitude this way: “I love Happy Hollow but I don’t have kids in my life, so I can’t come anymore.”

Bob Lowell, 70, explains his reason for attending the Senior Safari.

“It was free,” deadpans Lowell, whose wife admits they’ve rarely ventured outside in the past two years. “And no kids. That’s always good.”

Happy Hollow doesn’t compare with larger celebrity zoos like San Diego, but its low-key vibe spawns a more intimate experience.

“We really specialize in small, endangered animals,” says Lerner. “The role of the modern zoo is to introduce people to nature so they will protect it, appreciate it. It will die out if we don’t steward it.”

During the renovation, zoo designers carefully crafted what Lerner calls “parallel play.” Near the nimble lemurs is a playground for kids who mirror the primates’ lively movements. Similarly, a climbing wall is located right next to hill-loving goats.

“It’s all so subtle,” says Lerner, one of the Silicon Valley Business Journal’s 100 Top Women of Influence in 2011.

As a child, Lerner banked several fond zoo memories, including her beloved snail races. Once a student at Chico State studying recreation administration, her vivid creativity has spawned not just the Walkabout but the annual Hoot & Howl fundraiser which mixes adults of all ages in a wild extravaganza of unique experiences.

Climb ladder. Drink sake bomb. And slide.

“Then you’re going to throw it down on the best dance floor in the Valley,” she adds.

September’s Hoot & Howl guests ranged in age from 21 to 88. The event serves as the foundation’s primary fundraiser, helping spawn its first $1 million donation. The evening’s electronica DJ – zookeeper John Beaver – has appeared at Coachella four times. He’s called the comforting presence of the animals at Happy Hollow “my Zen.”

Last year’s first Senior Safari brought in a modest 80 seniors. This year, monthly figures have reached over 500.

Kaiser spends about $2,500 per Senior Safari, which covers parking, promotion and branded “swag.” However, they haven’t yet renewed their support for next year.

Lerner isn’t fazed by this and knows the Senior Safari concept is a hit with San Jose’s older adult community — and a springboard for other ideas to engage older adults in new and interesting ways.

“Seniors don’t want to go to a chair aerobics class.”

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