Daily Herald
You're never too old for nature: Seniors go on camping trip
By Eileen O. Daday | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 8/25/2010 12:02 AM

A group of 40 seniors, ranging in age from 65 to 93, may have discovered the fountain of youth: camping.

Wearing "Camp Viva" T-shirts, they revisited their childhoods last week at a suburban campground facility where they fished, hiked and sitting around a campfire.

"I felt like I was back in Girl Scouts," said Barbara Sharf, who lives at Alexian Village in Elk Grove Village, and at 93 was the oldest camper to attend. "It brought back so many memories, like maybe that I could even light a campfire."

They camped at Sunrise Lake, an outdoor education center tucked away in Bartlett that is owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization.

Typically, the lake and surrounding campground serves children with special needs from eight suburban school districts. But last week its handicapped accessible ramps and paved trails accommodated senior campers with walkers and in wheelchairs.

They came from 10 supported living facilities - from Bartlett and Elk Grove, to Chicago and the South suburbs - owned by Pathway Senior Living in Des Plaines. Its mission is to create vibrant, healthy communities for seniors.

"We're all about creating an environment in aging that prevents helplessness, loneliness and boredom," said Maria Oliva, chief people officer for Pathway. "Just because you're a little frail, doesn't mean you can't try new things."

Even Senior Life Enrichment managers at Pathway conceded that taking some of their residents on a campout was a first. But judging by the re-energized campers it produced, it probably won't be the last.

Take Button Garner, who lives at Victory Centre in Bartlett. She tried to do as many of the outdoor activities as she could, she said, but she concluded that one of her favorites was the nature walk into the woods.

"There were so many wonderful things to see, from wild rose bushes to caneberries and wild chicory," she said.

Another camper, Diana Glassner from Alexian Village in Elk Grove, pointed to her leather bracelet and over-the-shoulder pouch she made in the arts and crafts building.

"My grandchildren can fight over them," she quipped.

Glassner grew more serious when she reflected that she had come to the camp as a child in the 1940s, for four summers in a row.

Camp officials said the 11-acre lake and campgrounds dated back to the 1930s, when a group of businessmen developed it and brought out inner city children to experience the country.

Over the years, ownership has changed several times, until the 1970s when NSSEO officials acquired it.

While much had changed over the years, with the addition of paved trails, a sandy beach and even the large deck overlooking the lake, Glassner said its serene camp-like setting had remained the same.

"I was so emotional when we arrived, I couldn't get the words out," Glassner said. "I just loved hiking through the woods, and sitting on the beach feeling the breeze. It was so peaceful, it really brought me back."

Which is exactly what Pathway officials had hoped when they set up the campout. They described it as a way for seniors to experience the benefits of a change in routine, fresh air, exercise, socializing and all while creating new memories.