USF Sarasota-Manatee helping to make Sarasota more age-friendly

Dr. Kathy Black is leading the Age-Friendly Sarasota initiative.

Dr. Kathy Black is leading the Age-Friendly Sarasota initiative.

SARASOTA, Fla. (June 10, 2015) – Sarasota County residents ages 50 and older can now participate in an online survey offered by “Age-Friendly Sarasota,” the multi-partner initiative aimed at making Sarasota County age-friendlier for people across their lifespan.

The survey – for county residents only – is now available at www.agefriendlysarasota.org (click “Join the Community” at the bottom of the page or “Take the Survey” within the sliding images at the top of the page). Paper versions of the survey will be available at libraries and senior centers starting in July.

Organizers posted the survey following last month’s announcement at a Sarasota County Commission meeting that the World Health Organization had designated the county as “age-friendly.” That designation, the first for a Florida community, represents the starting point in the multi-year Age-Friendly Sarasota campaign.

Several partners are collaborating on Age-Friendly Sarasota: The Patterson Foundation, AARP Florida, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, Sarasota County Health and Human Services and the Florida Policy Exchange Center on Aging at USF. The initiative is led by USF Sarasota-Manatee professor Dr. Kathy Black.

Depending on what the surveys reveal – they’re due back in November – and based on additional research and collaboration with the community, the campaign will develop a blueprint, or series of recommendations, for the future. Those recommendations, large and small, will also build on the successful work by existing age-friendly communities.

One such recommendation, for example, might be to develop social activities that engage older and younger residents alike. Other recommendations might touch on public policy, such as requiring sidewalks and parks be designed in a way that’s mindful of people as they age.

The good news is not every change need be costly. Some can be quick and relatively painless such as adding hand rails at public places or using larger fonts on signs, said Dr. Black, who has focused her near 30-year academic career on gerontology, including the past 13 years at USF Sarasota-Manatee. Dr. Black started her career in nursing, which provides her with a unique and comprehensive background to undertake this work.

“We need to respect people of all ages of life and that’s really what this study is all about,” she said.

Age-Friendly Sarasota has its roots in an earlier study co-authored by Dr. Black and funded by The Patterson Foundation, a Sarasota-based philanthropic organization.

Called “Aging with Dignity & Independence” and published in 2011 by the think tank Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence, the study elaborated on six actionable themes. Respondents concluded by offering an array of suggestions, including several specific aims.

Among those, that parks and recreation officials host more age-friendly programs, that Meals on Wheels drivers occasionally provide a book or movie to shut-ins, along with the meals, and that more bus routes and sun shelters be added.

Organizers elicited about 500 survey responses. By comparison, the Age-Friendly initiative hopes to generate a much larger public response and touch on potentially broader areas of change.

“This really takes that work and brings it to the next level,” Dr. Black said.

Dr.Black won’t make assumptions about what Age-Friendly Sarasota might eventually yield: “We’ll have to wait to get the surveys back,” she said.

After the responses are returned, organizers will hold several public meetings to go over them and refine their suggestions. Eventually, those suggestions will be turned over to elected officials and other policy makers.

“This really is going to be a blueprint for moving forward based on a community consensus,” Dr. Black said.

She calls her ongoing work in the age-friendly campaign “the pinnacle” of her career.

It offers potential to broadly impact thousands of county residents, depending on officials’ reactions to the study, and could lay the groundwork to impact other communities worldwide.

“I think it could be the most impactful work, in terms of the community, that I’ve ever done and it’s the most encompassing I’ve ever done,” Dr. Black said.

Dr. Black joined USF Sarasota-Manatee in 2002.

She received a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Welfare from the State University of Albany in New York in 2000. In the late 1980s and early ’90s she earned three master’s degrees, including a Master of Gerontology from the University of Southern California.

Her abiding interest in gerontology goes back further, though.

While living in New York’s Catskills, where she grew up, she started by studying psychiatric nursing. Then one summer she agreed to work at a nursing home and was immediately hooked. Gerontology became her lifelong interest.

“After that I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Dr. Black said.

“I love people and love to hear their stories,” she said. “We as a society tend to minimize older age. Our society is very ageist. It minimizes people, but the reality is there are a lot of positives of aging. We need to start to respect that.”