By Gerhard Schneibel

Retirement is a busy time for the hundreds of seniors a day who drop into the Dorothy Benson Senior Center on Vernon Woods Drive in Sandy Springs.

The center offers classes and activities ranging from circuit training, water fitness and line dancing to oil painting and digital photography. Access is free to Fulton County residents 55 and older. Nonresidents can participate for $100 annually.

Facility manager Andre Gregory said the center is one of the largest senior day facilities in the nation. It covers 43,000 square feet in three buildings and serves 200 to 400 participants each day.

“It’s almost like one of our flagship facilities here in Fulton County,” he said. “We’ve hosted the governor, senators and congressmen, so it’s been really nice to be well known. We’ve made a name for ourselves on the national stage.”

Phyllis Lunning of Sandy Springs has volunteered at the center for about six years. She wakes up at 5 three days a week to work until 11 a.m. on the bread line, which sells bread, pastries and cakes for less than $1 per serving.

“I’m 84 years old, and I just keep moving,” she said. “Volunteering has gotten me out among people. Almost all the other people here have had the same problem I had — you know, loneliness when you’re old. And they do everything here for the people. The more you do, the more you want to do.”

Proceeds from the bread line go toward improvements to the center.

That money comes in handy. “As any agency would say, money is always an issue,” Gregory said. “Funding in this economic environment that we’re in — the budget gets tighter and tighter, so you always have to do more with less.”

Meanwhile, the center is trying to accommodate a changing senior population. It is now open until 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday and until noon Saturday to give seniors who are working a chance to participate, Gregory said.

“A lot of the baby boomers are 54, 55 years of age, and they’re still doing a lot of things they did when they were 30 or 35,” he said. “We’re looking at having our programs be more inclusive so we can attract more of the baby boomers and just re-evaluating and having more innovative programming.”

Such programs might eventually include clubs for activities such as tennis and golf. Members would meet at the center and go to tennis courts or a golf course together.

“Trying to create new and innovative programming with a limited budget is always a challenge. A lot of times you have to rely on volunteers, people who are willing to volunteer their time and skills and abilities,” Gregory said. “One of the things that we are fortunate to have here at the Benson complex … is that we get a decent amount of donations, so we encourage people if they ever want to give, they can give to our Friends of Benson organization.”

One of the volunteers is Joe Rich, a Sandy Springs resident and native Atlantan in his mid-70s who was a regional manager for Baskin-Robbins. He began going to the Benson Center the day it opened in October 1999 and spends time there when he’s not occupied with his wife of more than 40 years, his two children or his three grandchildren.

“I like the enjoyment of the people, getting around with the people, meeting more people and the general activities that they have around here,” he said. “I teach a needlepoint class here on a regular basis, weekly. I just like the camaraderie of the people. … I always thought I would not like retirement, but I’ve found that with the Benson Center here, I’ve really enjoyed it.”