Eileen Tragert, 54, went to camp for the first time last year. "I sent my four boys to camp and they had marvelous times," she says. "I started to realize I was becoming very physically inactive."
Last year, she figured, it was her turn.
Camp? At 54? The kind with games, campfires and singalongs, rustic cabins, fellowship and the striving to accomplish something new? You bet.
"The first day of camp it poured rain, but everybody showed up," says Tragert. "Five miles outside of Washington the van they hired had a flat tire." Tragert, of Rockville, plans to go back for more.
So does Westinghouse engineer Frank Huddleston, 60, of Bowie, Md. "My wife works and I work," he says. "I have more vacation time than she has. When I saw a write-up for an adult camp I thought, 'This is something I could go to by myself.' " This summer his wife may go with him.
Tragert and Huddleston were participants in a pilot program last October, two of seven campers who canoed, played tennis, sang, danced, ate and learned how to improve their mental and physical health at Camp Friendship near Charlottesville, Va.
The camp for adults 50 and older is based on the Adults Health and Developmental Program at the University of Maryland, a Saturday program in operation 13 years, which attributes its success to one-on-one relationships between youthful, trained student or volunteer staffers and senior participants.
"There are resorts for seniors, but this is the first health and well-being camp which creates programs tailor-made to the senior camper," says Dan Leviton, founder and director of both programs and professor of health education at the University of Maryland.
Combining therapeutic play with informative discussions and plenty of trained staffers, the camp provides a safe, nonstressful atmosphere in which senior campers can participate in activities from rope climbing and tennis to yoga and folk dancing.
Discussion topics, selected by indicated group interest, include assessing basic physical fitness, osteoporosis, loneliness, dental care, nutrition, sexuality, stress management, coping with loss and a catch-all favorite, psycho-social issues of aging. "We tailor the talks to the group," says Leviton.
Leviton entitles one of his talks "Predictors of Life Satisfactions." It, perhaps more than any other discussion, sums up the message imparted by the camp atmosphere and activities, its reason for existence. "There are variables which can be used to predict life satisfaction," explains Leviton, "such as friendship, activities, personality."
He advocates working with the controllable factors, such as learning to take care of your health and not taking a position of helplessness. Most importantly, he sees activity as a means to building friendship.
The camper-staffer ratio provides a basis for an initial friendship. "The secret really is the one-on-one relationships," says Leviton. Campers are matched individually with a staffer trained in areas of recreation and health and with a knowledge of the special problems older campers may encounter.
"Once you start mixing up the health-education and play and personalized attention it becomes a family," says Leviton. "The staffers get as much out of the contacts as do the seniors. What this does away with is a patronizing atmosphere."
And the program, emphasizing play and activity, reduces threat. "There's no pressure," says Leviton. "You're just here to get into a health and well-being groove."
Huddleston, active despite a physical disability, says he wondered just how much activity his body could maintain. "It was advantageous to have someone who could advise me," he says, mentioning in almost the same breath the rope climbing and tennis he enjoyed, particularly as he was matched with a staffer of the same tennis level.
Charlotte Broughton, 71, Riverdale, Md., came to camp with two broken toebones, a cane and determination enough to try the rope course. Spry, spunky, direct, she says of her energy, "I'm loaded with it . . . but you don't have to be an active camper. It's also for people who like walking."
Mentioning the ropes, aerobics, dancing, canoeing (two tipped over on one excursion) and campfires (she was chauffeured between activities), she asks, "Where do you do these things? You don't!" Broughton's only complaint was that "the married people one couple got to live in the heated bunks over the lake . . . I came home and bought a flannel nightgown to go back."
The women campers and some women staffers shared a cabin, the usual camp cabin -- no heat and bunk beds. Bunk beds for seniors? Of course, says Linda Campanelli, 32, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland and a staffer with AHDP for nine years.
"People aren't old at 60. If they are painting houses and climbing ladders at home they have no trouble with bunk beds. We should only think of people as old over 75."
Campanelli admits, however, that the first group of campers "were really robust people. They were all sort of outgoing to begin with -- risk takers. But not high-level physical."
"It was a small group," says Karen Mueck, 24, a Washington recreational therapist who joined the camp staff. "Everyone became friends. Age didn't matter."
Could those of a lower functioning level manage well at the camp? "Someone who walks slowly, that's no problem," says Mueck. "Activities are structured, but you don't have to be there on time."
People in wheelchairs, she says, would need special arrangements but wouldn't pose a problem. "All the staff is professional. Most have degrees in health or recreation therapy."
Says Campanelli: "If we ever got a population of people really old, what they'd get out of it is the beauty of the environment, the attention of the staff, the lectures and exercise tailored to their capabilities and interests."
Leviton's chief aim -- to create a therapeutic, rejuvenating atmosphere through activity and friendship -- does not conflict with his equally ambitious plans to create a national network of camps and programs such as AHDP.
Funding for the program at the University of Maryland has been limited, he says, but it is there that staffers get their training, working with a diverse mix of relatively healthy to severely disabled and disoriented older people. The AHDP advisory board also serves the camp.
Leviton, 54, sees the camp as a way of supporting the campus program. "It's a Reaganite dream," he says. "Private enterprise supporting the public sector."
According to Leviton, 27 colleges and universities have requested training to begin similar programs but the necessary funding for training is not yet available. "Working with the aged," he says, "is a wave of the future."
Camp AHDP will offer four sessions: May 17-23, May 27-31, June 2-8, Sept. 30-Oct. 3. 7-day camp, $325; 5-day, $230; 4-day, $150. Round-trip van or bus, $30. For more information, contact Dan Leviton, director (301) 431-3733.