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Saving summer: Senior citizens step up to fill the gap amid lifeguard shortage


Usually, Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of pool season. This year, there is a shortage of lifeguards. So some pools have shortened their hours or aren't opening at all. But as Colorado Public Radio's Matt Bloom reports, some cities are trying something else - training a generation of older swimmers to fill the gap.

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: Craig Robinson was in the middle of his morning swim laps at his local rec center north of Denver a couple months ago when he heard a whistle and saw a guard motioning for him to get out of the pool.

CRAIG ROBINSON: We all had to get out and sit on the bench while the one and only lifeguard had to go to the bathroom. There wasn't any coverage. We get it, you know? This is a problem.

BLOOM: As Robinson and several other retirees sat on the poolside bench that morning, they formed an idea. Why shouldn't they become lifeguards themselves to fill the shortage?

ROBINSON: It doesn't have to be teenagers. You know, we can help the community and help ourselves.

BLOOM: Thus, at the age of 69, Robinson's new career as a lifeguard was born.


ROBINSON: This is not "Baywatch," where we - we're all big and strong, you know? We're, like, real people.

BLOOM: Robinson, a white-haired and partially retired physician's assistant, and the group of retirees gave themselves a nickname - the Immortals, after the Marvel "Eternals" movie, and it stuck.

ROBINSON: We're still swimming despite being old. One of us has a pacemaker and has already had a bypass surgery, but he can do all the swim that's required.

BLOOM: Some are retired from sales and customer service. One's even a former minister. They all make standout lifeguards, says Rich Condo, a swimmer who's just emerging from the lap pool.

RICH CONDO: These people get up at 4:30 in the morning. They have to come here and open the facility at around 4:50. So that's a level of commitment and drive to want to help the community.

BLOOM: States from Florida to Texas have started running TV ads to recruit older age groups as guards, which has helped fill some openings. Condo, the Denver swimmer, says he feels perfectly safe with the older guards on duty.

CONDO: I have every confidence that these people, irregardless of age, are all capable and qualified to come to my rescue, God forbid, if I have a problem in the water.

BLOOM: Just like any guards, the Immortals had to pass a series of physically challenging drills to practice rescuing a human from the water. They also take care of pool maintenance like rearranging heavy floating lane lines.


ROBINSON: All right. There's one.

BLOOM: For Craig Robinson, it's one of the few downsides to the job.

ROBINSON: You can see how it's pretty easy to get pulled in? There's quite a bit of drag on these things - tear the flesh off your hand if you're not careful.

BLOOM: The pay isn't bad - 17 bucks an hour - but he only works seven hours a week. And it's worth it to see the community come out and safely enjoy the water which may otherwise be unavailable. Today, there's a large water aerobics class scheduled.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Wall right. Eight, seven, six...

BLOOM: Robinson says he's proud to fill a community need, and he thinks more retirees should consider it.

ROBINSON: There are limitations, but everybody has limitations. If you're 30, you have limitations. You have different limitations when you're 60 and 70, but you still have something to offer.

BLOOM: You could be a barista, a chef, a landscaper - just find something that gets you going, Robinson says. He, for one, is happy ending his day with a dip.


BLOOM: For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matt is a passionate journalist who loves nothing more than good reporting, music and comedy. At KUNC, he covers breaking news stories and the economy. He’s also reported for KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles. As NPR’s National Desk intern in Culver City during the summer of 2015, he produced one of the first episodes of Embedded, the NPR podcast hosted by Kelly McEvers where reporters take a story from the headlines and “go deep.”

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