Bring on the Life

By staff June 1, 2004

It was one of those ridiculously beautiful Southwest Florida spring mornings, and striding out of the gym after an invigorating workout, I felt full of youthful energy and high spirits. On the way home, I stopped at a little antique shop, where I came across some '50s-style, pastel-colored, square plastic plates. "Do you know how old these plates are?" I asked the pretty young salesclerk, who was absently flipping through a magazine. "I'm not sure," she said, without looking up, "but a really, really old woman came in this morning and said she had plates like that when she was married." She glanced up at me and did a double-take: "But wait-wasn't that you?"

A few years ago, I probably would have reeled out of the shop in shock, but I guess I've gained perspective with advancing age, because I just laughed-and bought the plates to boot. Age, I've come to realize, can lie in the eye of the beholder. A few years ago, within the space of a few months I was asked for my ID by an elderly clerk in a liquor store and for my senior discount card by a teen-aged cashier at the movies.

Besides, the whole concept of age seems to have become more elastic. Just look at the way we dress. When I was growing up, the moms mopped in housedresses and the dads went off to work in suits. But now children, teens and parents in the same family outfit themselves in T-shirts and khakis from the Gap. My 83-year-old mother hasn't worn a dress in years, but she couldn't get along without her blue jeans. She also just acquired her own e-mail address, keeps adding to her frequent flier miles and has ambitious plans for redecorating her house. Like so many other Southwest Florida seniors, she keeps adapting to a world of accelerating change, and that's probably why she sees herself as fluid and evolving rather than fixed and finished.

According to a recent piece in the New York Times Sunday magazine, she's in the vanguard of a rapidly growing segment of our population. America is getting older, and with a vengeance. By 2050, writer Susan Dominus reports, one out of every four Americans will be over 65; and many will be much, much older, with some experts predicting we'll have a sizeable number of citizens over 110-"supercenturians," Dominus calls them. Thanks to medical advances-including, according to some cellular biologists, new drugs that will soon slow the aging process-many will remain active well into their ultra-old age; but others, living with diseases and disabilities that formerly would have killed them, will need decades of care.

This staggering demographic change raises all sorts of questions, from how people will use the extra time (second careers? reluctance to commit to marriages that might last 90 years?) to whether the younger generations can shoulder the enormous fiscal and psychic (80-year-olds may still be taking orders from Mom and Dad) burdens of supporting so many oldsters.

Those are weighty issues indeed, and I can already see, from my comfortable midpoint in life, that even the happiest old age comes with an escalating tab of cruel losses. But I say, bring on the extra years, and if more life proves to be a problem, it's a good problem I'm confident we can address.

Part of that confidence probably comes from living in Southwest Florida-America's Ground Zero when it comes to extended living. From our luxurious new retirement communities to geriatric medical specialists to such ongoing educational programs as the Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning (SILL), we're redefining old age and the medical and social networks that support it. And that trend will only accelerate. Though in recent years we've attracted many younger families, Sarasota remains the fifth-oldest county in the country, and Charlotte is the very oldest. And because people are living longer and retirees keep moving here in droves, we'll keep getting older. (Sarasota's median age was 49 in 1990, 50.4 in 2000, and is projected, as is Charlotte's, to be 58.6 in 2020.)

If that concerns you, it shouldn't. Our retirees have sustained our economic growth, even while much of the country suffered through downturns, and supported the arts, restaurants, shops and amenities the rest of us enjoy. Many came here for a healthier lifestyle, and their desire for top-quality health care-and ability to pay for it-have also attracted a remarkable collection of medical professionals and facilities. You'll read about some of those in this issue, which includes medical research firm Castle-Connolly's exclusive listing of Southwest Florida's "Best Doctors," along with information about finding the right one to help you in your own quest for a longer, better life.

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