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The Issue of Aging Print E-mail

AgingSarasota’s Institute for the Ages
Ryan G. Van Cleave

"Aging isn’t any one thing. Aging is everything,” reports Institute for the Age’s CEO Tim Dutton during his presentation “A Community that Values Its Demographics” at the 2012 Aging in America conference in Washington, DC. He’s put his finger on a growing problem that might be bigger than ObamaCare, the U.S./Mexico wall, our relations with the Middle East, and our growing national debt. Aging is one of the most important issues not only for Sarasota – one of the oldest communities in the U.S. with over 31% of our residents aged 65 or older – but for the world.

A look at the following statistics shows why this issue needs serious attention:

  • A quarter of the U.S. population is over 55.
  • By 2050, a third of the U.S. population will be over 55; 20% will be 65+.
  • People 80+ will be the fastest growing population for the next 40 years.
  • The 78 million Americans over 55 are the most consistently vocal political group.
  • Approximately 100,000 of the 1.2 million people in the five counties surrounding Sarasota are either directly or indirectly affected by Alzheimer’s, dementia, or cognitive disorders.

The U.S. isn’t alone in the dilemma of an aging population. Nearly 40% of the developed world will be 55+ by 2050. But getting back to the here and now – the 55+ group in the U.S. controls approximately 70% of the country’s disposable income and 75% of the financial assets. Their age cohort represents $1 trillion in spending power. The number of people over 65 in the workforce is projected to increase more than 80% in the next 10 years, and not just because of the aging of baby boomers – more older adults are choosing to keep working or return to work.

Whether the cause is increased longevity thanks to the advances in medicine or a lower birth rate, the result is clear: there are more older people today than ever before. And they can’t – and shouldn’t – be ignored. Debra Jacobs, the president and CEO of The Patterson Foundation, explains, “’Aging’ isn’t about one’s age, but rather the issues related to older adults such as healthcare, lifestyle, volunteering, working, learning, playing, housing, transportation – all issues that touch every person at every age, albeit differently at every age.”

What’s being done about to address these various aging-related issues? Not as much as we need to, suggests the Institute for the Ages, a new Sarasota organization that was born as the “Aging: The Possibilities” initiative from the nonprofit organization SCOPE. Eventually the Institute became its own entity by filing articles of incorporation in September 2010. It became such an important group that the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County has it as an integral part of its strategic plan, even though the Institute is a national focus with a local focus.

Nancy K. Schlossberg, a board member for both SCOPE and the Institute, says, “We are one of the communities – if not THE community – in which to study older populations.” That’s why it makes sense for this organization to be based in Sarasota, with a new office on Main Street in a space donated by Sarasota Memorial Hospital. How does this translate into positive things locally? For one thing, the Institute recently received $200,000 to develop a senior registry. This registry will be an incentive for companies to come in to study aging populations in terms of new products. For instance, if Intel wants to see how older people would react to a new device in their home that reminds them to take pills or check on their health, we’re the place to do it. This means jobs for researchers, and local jobs for people to install and manage the equipment and to work with the older adults engaged in the study. Another outcome is that the information companies get on innovative products will help people beyond our local community. As Schlossberg says, “Anything that improves the lives of any part of our population benefits us all.”

The Institute won’t look, act, or feel like other organizations. To this end, they enlisted RTI – a world leading research institute dedicated to improving the human condition – to do a large-scale survey to find out how the Institute should work. Schlossberg explains: “We want to be both a think tank and a do tank.” And that’s what’s happening, starting with a national conference that brought more than two dozen innovators to Sarasota to talk with several local leaders and innovators in aging about what could be done. With a mission that supports policy, research, and action, the Institute is poised to smooth the coming demographic transition by connecting businesses, government leaders, and local residents, to change the design of goods and services, the delivery and use of public resources, the characteristics of our workforce, and the very structure of communities.

At the moment, many businesses, policymakers, and nonprofits are unprepared for what’s to come. More importantly, these challenges and opportunities are not limited to any one sector and can’t be addressed by any one entity alone. It’s unusual to encounter a transition of this magnitude and know it is coming, and even rarer to have a transition that can be embraced for its many economic, cultural, and community opportunities. Where better than Sarasota to meet this challenge and help make the future a better place?

The Institute isn’t alone in tackling the issues related to aging populations. The Patterson Foundation includes “Aging with Dignity and Independence” among its initiatives, largely because its namesake, Dorothy Clarke Patterson, lived with rheumatoid arthritis and dementia but managed to stay in her own home with both dignity and independence because of a network of support around her. Jacobs says, “This community views aging positively – as evidenced by over 1,000 citizens actively engaged in SCOPE’s various aging initiative studies and forums. We have an opportunity to be the architects of the changes that result from 10,000 people a day turning 65 in our nation. Sarasota is the epicenter for using our imagination to create new realities.”

Ultimately, groups like the Institute for the Ages and SCOPE, and initiatives like The Patterson Foundation’s “Aging with Dignity and Independence,” bring together the people and resources that can envision, plan for, and create a tomorrow that we all can look forward to. Aging is the most important demographic trend of our time, and Sarasota is decades ahead in figuring out how best to prepare for it. “We are living healthier, longer lives,” Jacobs adds, “and there is a whole lot of energy and zest for living life to the fullest. Opportunities for change abound.”

 

If you want to get involved as a donor or project participant, please visit www.institutefortheages.org.

For more information on The Patterson Foundation, please visit www.thepattersonfoundation.org.

To learn more about SCOPE’s community-based efforts, please visit www.scopexcel.org.