ACTIVITIES AS OF JUNE 2021
Sarasota County, located on Florida’s west coast, includes the cities of Sarasota, Venice and North Port, and the town of Longboat Key. It is home to some 439,000 permanent residents, 37 percent of whom are age 65 or older. Eleven percent of residents are 80 or older.
Initiative Name: Age-Friendly Sarasota
Network Member Since: 2015, when the county became Florida’s first age-friendly community
Government Type: Five elected commissioners appoint a county administrator, who manages daily operations.
Reason(s) for Joining: Kathy Black, a professor of aging studies at the University of South Florida, and the Sarasota Seniors Advisory Council organized a focus group to ask older residents about the types of community features they believed supported their dignity and independence.
As Black explains, “It’s not like I could take a blood pressure reading of dignity. We identified parallel themes and when we learned more about the age-friendly movement and the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, we thought, ‘This would help our community and we could be part of something bigger at the national level with AARP and the World Health Organization.’”
Needing sponsorship from the local government, Black reached out to the Florida Department of Health. Recalls Chuck Henry, the county’s top health officer: “The way the age-friendly initiatives aligned with many of the public health goals we were trying to do with our community, it didn't take a lot of convincing!”
Black and Henry were instrumental in getting the age-friendly initiative off the ground and maintain a strong commitment to the work.
Local Leadership: Sarasota County created an age-friendly staff position in 2018. Susan Berger was appointed, with the title Aging System Policy Coordinator. Berger came to Age-Friendly Saratsota from a two-decade career with Senior Friendship Centers, a nonprofit that helps older adults in four Southwest Florida counties “live with dignity and independence.”
The Financials: Age-Friendly Sarasota has strong staff support from the county government. Additional support and funding comes from The Patterson Foundation, which describes its work as strengthening "the efforts of people, organizations, and communities by focusing on issues that address mutual aspirations, foster wide participation, and encourage learning and sharing."
Getting Started: The county initiated its Age-Friendly Action Plan in 2015 and published it in 2017.
Actions and Achievements
Public Transit Accessibility
All public transit buses in Sarasota County are the low-floor variety, meaning there are no steps between the ground and the floor of the bus and only a slight difference in elevation. Low-floor vehicles are more accessible than traditional buses, which require riders to climb several steps when boarding and sometimes yet another step to reach the seats.
Unlike most communities enrolled in the AARP age-friendly network, Sarasota County was able to leverage efforts already underway throughout the community. “It’s quite advanced down here,” says Black. “There was definitely much support for aging.”
Getting Around Town
“In 2016, our whole county went to low-floor buses that deploy for easy accessibility, and all of them have wheelchair accessibility,” says Berger. In addition, Sarasota County Area Transit provides transportation more than 4,000 times per month via paratransit buses for individuals who are unable to access regular buses.
“We also have a nonprofit, volunteer transportation group called ITNSuncoast,” Black explains, noting that the acronym stands for Independent Transportation Network. “The per-trip cost is akin to the price of a taxi, but the passenger receives a more personalized service. In our assessment of the community, the transportation needs we anticipated were for medication and groceries and doctor's visits. But when you ask people what matters to them, they want to go to see a play at night, they want to get out for a ride. This particular program is a way to provide dignified transportation and even play car karaoke!”
A Day at the Beach
Accessible waterfront features include easy-launch kayaks, no-cost beach wheelchairs at five beaches and mobility (beach) mats, which provide a nonslip, roll-out walking surface for residents who use wheelchairs, canes or walkers. “The initial focus of the mobility mat was so people with mobility issues could get down to the water,” says Berger. “But the mats are great for people pushing strollers or when they bring their wagon, coolers and chairs.”
A Trail for All
The Legacy Trail is a paved, roughly 10-mile-long path that connects communities across the county and is used for walking, jogging and biking. Rest stations are found every mile or so.
A popular feature is the surrey, a four-wheeled canopy-covered bicycle that's driven by volunteers who pedal passengers along the trail for a 45-minute ride. The Friends of the Legacy Trail website describes the vehicle as “ideally suited for mobility challenged individuals, provided they can climb one step onto the surrey.” Adds Berger: “You just feel like you're in old world Florida. The voters and Board of County Commissioners have agreed to extend it another eight miles. The trail is useful for promoting health and well-being and is just a great form of fun mobility and staying active.”
Loud and Clear
Sarasota County has taken great strides in making its website more accessible. “It was redesigned so it’s better for aging eyes,” says Black. Personalized viewing options include increased text size and color contrast and easier keyboard navigation. (Visit scgov.net and click on the wheelchair symbol in the top right.)
Sarasota’s 10 public libraries all have assistive technology equipment, including a portable magnification device to use on newspapers or books, a device that turns text into speech in multiple languages, a low-vision computer station containing magnification software, and braille displays that work with the low-vision computers so patrons can type and read in braille. Many meeting rooms are equipped with hearing loops to assist individuals who have hearing impairment. In addition to its age-friendly equipment, in 2019 the libraries offered 2,250 adult programs attended by more than 43,000 residents.
Public Health and Aging
This is the advice Chuck Henry, Sarasota County's top health officer, gives to fellow public health professionals:
“I tell them to find and partner with whomever is working on age-friendly projects because they're doing the same things we're trying to do. Our assessment has a pure public health focus and age-friendly’s has more of a broader community focus — with a lot of health intertwined. While only one of the 8 Domains of Livability specifically mentions health, health is a key factor in all the domains.
“It’s a huge benefit to have the age-friendly network to collaborate with. Because of those connections — and age-friendly’s vast information sources — the level of awareness in Florida about public health as seen through an aging lens has grown tremendously."
(See the Related Links list below to learn more.)
Launched in 2017, the event is a series of discussions designed to "encourage thought leadership, change minds, and instigate action by providing a platform for discourse on compelling age-related issues."
“I’m a big advocate for older adults and combatting ageism," says Erin McLeod, president/CEO of Senior Friendship Centers, which helps host the convention. "Ageism is pervasive in our society, from greeting cards, people using the term ‘senior moment,’ the evil villains in kids’ movies who are often depicted as old crones. We have an entire industry devoted to anti-aging because people don't view aging as something that is respected and revered.”
Black agrees: “We know ageism is a serious scourge throughout the world. It’s one of the isms that still exist. When we did our focus groups and I asked about ageism, nobody said anything. But when we talked about transportation, we heard lots of stereotypes and prejudice about older drivers."
(Because driving skills often do diminish as drivers age, the Sarasota action plan calls for the creation of more transportation options for older residents.)
"Age-friendly communities are countering ageism by changing the conversation about aging," says Black. "The conversation shifts when we address age-friendly as livability for people at all ages and abilities. We are really talking about living fully, and having full access and participation in community life, which gets people to think more positively. They're excited about it and want to do what they need to do to make their lives and their community better. That’s what’s inspirational to me.”
Lessons Learned (and Advice for Others)
Branding Takes Time
“We’ve been an older community for some time. But branding ourselves as an age-friendly community takes time,” says Kathy Black. “We’re working to educate and show government officials, policymakers and every sector throughout the county that everybody benefits when you design for all ages and all abilities.”
Planning Now for Later
“It's hard to get people thinking about more than just the here and now,” says Susan Berger. "People believe aging happens to someone else and don’t think about themselves as aging. In turn, there is very little thought about planning for the future and until there is a medical issue they don’t understand.”
Take Stock of What You Have
“I would advise every community to look around and understand what systems exist, and build on what they have,” says Chuck Henry. “One lesson I share all the time with communities is that building an age-friendly community is not a project you complete. Rather, it's a journey you undertake with your community, and there really is no end in sight, because you're constantly changing the goalposts as you write a new action plan and move on. So figure out a way to make it a part of your everyday work.”
- Age-Friendly Sarasota County, Florida, Responds to COVID-19
- Universal Design and Visitability in Sarasota County
- AARP Florida
- AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities
- Trust for America's Health Age-Friendly Public Health Systems
Find more age-friendly network Member Profiles
Reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner
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