Gray Matters

Photography by Rebecca Baxter By Molly Sinclair McCourtney October 31, 2009

With more than 30 percent of our population over 65—yes, one-third!—Sarasota is the biggest aging laboratory in the nation. This startling demographic fact is not one that chamber boosters and tourism officials trot out when they market the region, especially if they’re trying to attract those desirable young creatives. They prefer to stress our beautiful beaches, the arts and our exciting, successful companies.

But lately our lopsided age composition—more people die than are born here—is winning over economic development advocates. Why not turn Sarasota into a destination to study aging, a new type of Aspen Institute (the famous leadership and policy nonprofit in Aspen, Colo.) that could attract visionaries from around the world and spark the creation of a wide array of regional business opportunities and jobs in housing, product design, technology, construction and healthcare?

Now called Sarasota Institute for the Ages, or SIA, the idea is taking shape.

It just makes sense, says Tim Dutton, executive director of SCOPE (Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence), who was one of the first proponents of the idea to create an institute that studies seniors. SCOPE has held a series of community forums over the last four years and has reviewed the statistics on Sarasota’s population: Sarasota is the oldest large county in the U.S. when considering counties with a population of more than 250,000. The median age in Sarasota is 50. About 50 percent of all Sarasota households include someone over 65.

“The idea for the institute was born from that,” says Dutton. “We are the ideal place for this, with more than 30 percent of our population over the age of 65, compared to 18 percent for Florida and 12.4 percent for the U.S.” Manatee County, with 22.8 percent of its population over 65, also could benefit. With demographics like this, the institute could be an economic resource for the county, the region and the country.

“If it were a place that understood the profile of the aging population better than anyone else, that becomes information that is really valuable to product manufacturers, drug companies, you name it,” says Dutton.

The concept is now picking up financial and community support.

SCOPE has raised nearly $75,000 of the estimated $150,000 needed to pay for a business plan being developed by a North Carolina nonprofit group, Research Triangle Institute (RTI). The plan, which could be completed as early as January, will include an economic impact analysis and business model for the institute.

“This is a really compelling idea, and the more we dig in and talk to others in the field, the more compelling we think it is,” says Adrienne Brown, the TRI project manager for the Sarasota plan. 

“The whole idea is based on the demographics of Sarasota as an asset. We don’t know of any other community actively trying to generate economic development from its demographic asset.”

The Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County has endorsed the idea, saying the institute should be a “think and do tank” on aging, and a test bed for products and services geared toward people who may have gray hair but see themselves as vital and active with many years in front of them.

Emily Sperling, the EDC’s community relations director, says the EDC has written the aging industry into its new five-year plan, and adds that younger workers stand to benefit as well. “If you look at all the industries needed to support an aging-in-place population, you are talking healthcare, construction, design and technology, and those industries tend to attract younger employees,” she says.

SCOPE has recruited some of the top people in the field of aging to serve as members of an advisory board. One of them is Gene Cohen, founding director of the Washington, D.C., think tank Center on Aging and past president of the Gerontological Society of America.

The “whole area of aging is at a tipping point,” says Cohen, and the timing has never been better for innovative programs and ideas such as the Sarasota Institute for the Ages. Such an institute, he says, could generate a range of new programs as well as business and job opportunities. SIA is “very well positioned in Sarasota,” he says.

Retirement specialist and SCOPE board member Nancy Schlossberg, who helped identify and develop the concept for the institute, sees a universe of possibilities for Sarasota that could boost the entire region.

“We can be the aging Aspen, so that people come here for the best thinking about aging,” she says.

That thinking could focus on standards for designing houses with features that make it easier for people to age in place, such as doorways wide enough for wheelchairs and bathroom facilities to accommodate people with limited mobility. Other businesses that will be needed by an aging population, Schlossberg says, are counseling services for people as they work through decisions, such as whether to stay at home, move to where their children live or move into a retirement community.

The institute could stimulate research among local hospitals and medical facilities and connect existing businesses to further develop assets that already exist. Schlossberg also envisions training and learning programs that would draw professionals here for events and conferences.

Larry Thompson, the president of Ringling College of Art and Design and on the SIA steering committee, thinks the institute could even attract more of those young creative types that Ringling is so famous for bringing in and that Thompson and business leaders are so bent on keeping in the region. An increasingly older population is going to require different products and services than those the WWII generation wants, he says.

“Baby boomers are not going to put up with some of the purely functional items that exist for people who are older,” he says. “They want something better designed and more attractive. 

Instead of wheelchairs, they want Corvettes. This could be the place where companies like Proctor and Gamble can test their products, the place to see what works and what doesn’t work.”

Here are some of the potential business opportunities TRI sees an Institute for the Ages bringing:

 Aging in place. Any business that helps seniors stay in their homes will find a big market. These industries could include transportation services, home healthcare, information technology, industrial design, architecture and construction.

 Fitness and wellness. Seniors want to preserve the functions they have, and they want to look good doing it. Fitness clubs and coaches, nutritionists who focus on diets for the over-50, spa services and spiritual offerings—think yoga and meditation—will all be in demand.

 Scientific research and testing. The region’s large number of elderly creates the perfect lab in which to conduct research on products and services in the fields of wellness and disease management.

 Market research and testing. Sarasota and the SIA can be a one-stop destination for healthcare companies to conduct product innovation interactively with their consumers, medical professionals, medical service delivery providers and the research community.

 Health information management. The elderly often have multiple health problems, see several doctors and take lots of medications. Companies that can help oversee or develop health information tools for providers so they can manage these overwhelming and overlapping issues (such as drug interactions) will be a growing industry.

 Medical manufacturing. If Sarasota has the population and the researchers, it can also be a destination for manufacturers in the pharmaceutical/device/supply industry.

 Tourism and hospitality. SIA could attract visitors for training and other institute

events, such as an annual Aging in Place Expo that profiles new products, technologies and designs from around the country. The institute could spotlight local business and use the event as a business recruitment opportunity. As a think tank in a sunny destination, it would be an inviting destination for groups of academics and researchers.

 Advisory services. The institute could provide fee-for-service consulting to other communities that want to know how to handle this demographic shift. ■


Percent of population over

65 in counties around the U.S.

Harris County (Houston)    7.9%

Los Angeles County 10.7%

Bexar County (San Antonio) 10.2%

San Diego County 11.2%

Cook County (Chicago) 11.8%

Maricopa County (Phoenix) 11.4%

Hillsborough County

(Tampa) 12.1%

New York County

(Manhattan) 12.9%

Dade County (Miami) 15.4%

Pinellas County

(St. Petersburg) 21.1%

Manatee County 22.8%

Sarasota County 30.4%

SOURCE: U.S. Census, 2008  


The nation’s oldest counties

by percentage of over 65*

(1) McIntosh County, N.D.

population 2,639 with 956 over 65

(36.2 percent)

(2) Highlands County, Fla.

population 100,001 with 32,204 over 65

(32.2 percent)

(3) Citrus County, Fla.

population 141,416 with 43,415 over 65

(30.7 percent)

(4) Sarasota County, Fla.

population 372,057 with 113,106 over 65

(30.4 percent)

(5) Kalawao County, Hawaii

population 117, with 35 over 65

(29.9 percent)

(6) Charlotte County, Fla.

population 150,060 with 44,718 over 65

(29.8 percent)

*The U.S. Census ranks the 3,141 counties in the U.S. according to population percent 65 years and older, and Sarasota ranks highest among the “large” counties, meaning those with a population of 250,000 or more people.

SOURCE: U.S. Census, 2008

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