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Model railroad fever

Nostalgic pastime a popular favorite at Cedar Crest

Julia Collins
February 19, 2020

Tucked away in the basement of Cedar Crest, a thriving subculture meets to design and build an even smaller sub-village—a purpose-built railroad, complete with train yard, pickle works, and a town-n-country creamery. 

"It's very precise maneuvering—choreography," says Bob Smith, the group's chief designer. "Two to three hours pass quickly."

Core base

The model railroad club started at Cedar Crest, an Erickson Living-managed retirement community, in 2008 and has averaged about 20 to 30 people, including 3 women, over the years. The nostalgic activity brings members back to their childhood but also gives them a fulfilling project and lots of opportunities to socialize. 

"I've been interested in trains since receiving a set for Christmas at six years old," says Bob. "Dad set up tables in the basement all year round. At the time, Lionel published Model Builder magazine from October to March, during train season. I devoured that magazine every month it came out."

Although trains aren't quite as popular today as they were 50 years ago, the model railroad club brings a lot of joy to a lot of people—including many who aren't even in the club. 

Each year, from November to January, club members build a five- by nine-foot display in the Woodland Commons Clubhouse to be enjoyed by residents, staff, and grandchildren—especially when Santa visits for breakfast in December. 

"That time of year is our busiest," Bob says. "Residents look forward to the railroad setup, and the kids love it!" 

Aside from all the hustle and bustle of the holiday setup, Bob says the activity also helps stave off the winter blues. "We are so busy, we don't have time to get our spirits down," he notes. 

Club members socialize and chat, sharing ideas for design and working on modifications. "Modifying the operation is like writing a whole new play," Bob says. "It keeps things interesting and keeps people coming back. The site is always under construction."

They use one of Cedar Crest's craft rooms to build new kits, which are scaled one-quarter inch to a foot. 

Many members attend the annual National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) regional convention. The NMRA is divided into 18 regions, which cover the U.S., Australia, Canada, the British Isles, and Europe. Fifteen of those 18 regions cover the U.S. and Canada.

As a member of the Northeastern region, the Cedar Crest club can attend the convention in Westford, Mass., this year, to be in held October. In the past, the Cedar Crest club has agreed to hold an open house for attendees of the convention and Cedar Crest residents. 

The annual conventions provide a venue for NMRA model railroaders to gather and share their craftsmanship and skill, visit local layouts and prototype rail operations, and enjoy the fellowship of likeminded individuals.

It's kind of like that at Cedar Crest, but year-round. Members have brought their own trains and share ideas, layouts, and design. "It's a lot of fun," says Bob. 

The model railroad club is one of about 180 different activities and interest groups at Cedar Crest. Residents can participate in everything from group fitness classes and a walking club to book clubs and Bible study, from political interest groups to meditation meetings. 

Social benefits

As the nation's population of seniors is projected to increase by 60% over the next three decades, more people will be evaluating what living arrangements best meet their needs. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, several studies show a strong correlation between social interaction and health and well-being among older adults. 

For example, social relationships are consistently associated with biomarkers of health, and positive indicators of social well-being may be associated with lower levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory factor implicated in age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer. 

Those living in an amenity-rich continuing care retirement community like Cedar Crest can pursue their passions and be engaged in a plethora of opportunities for social interaction, including dining with neighbors, participating in clubs and activities, and volunteering. These opportunities promote healthier living and longevity.

"The culture on campus has so much richness in terms of social wellness. Residents are engaged in a variety of meaningful activities from socializing with their peers to organizing and participating in clubs and groups to serving others by volunteering in and outside the community," says Jeff Watson, Erickson Living's director of operations.