An Aging Florida

Photo by Emilio Labrador
Photo by Emilio Labrador

Florida: the land of sunshine, Disney World, and no state tax. The fourth largest state in the union that is quickly catching up with third-place New York, Florida is no longer the US’s best-kept secret. Diverse industries, beautiful weather and an economic recovery that occurred quicker than most other areas of the country, our state is quickly becoming a collection of both influential metropolises and majestic rural areas. But, Florida is also home to a secret weapon that could one day prove problematic if current trends continue: Florida is graying.

The state of Florida prides itself as a destination for retired senior citizens. The warm and business-friendly climate attracts these affluent individuals so much so that the retirement industry is the state’s second largest economic sector. There are no signs of this slowing down: nearly 1,000 people migrate here a day, almost 60 percent of whom are from those ages 60 and older. In fact, these aging baby boomers and Silent Generationers account for 50 percent of new home construction and $135 billion of spending power.

Older populations are civically engaged, give charitably, volunteer their time, and are generally considered to be a net positive for the state. While they represent about 58 percent of Medicaid spending, what they give back in local taxes, sales taxes and volunteer hours is thought to far outweigh whatever perceived drain they may symbolize.

“Seniors who live elsewhere in the country are discovering that they have greater buying power here,” said John Clark, president and CEO of the Council on Aging of West Florida. “A home that may cost $450,000 in Connecticut, or somewhere like that, would cost about $200,000 down here. So they bring their Social Security check and their retirement savings down here. That means new money for Florida.”

Rodney Guttman, who heads up the University of West Florida’s Center on Aging, agrees.

“These older adults not only have a lifetime’s worth of money,” said Guttman. “Their houses and cars are usually paid for. You know, people under 30 just don’t have the type of economic flexibility that seniors do. The economy in Florida is really driven by people over 50.”

Seniors in Florida also give about $3.5 billion annually to charities and non-profits. They also represent the largest voting block in the state. When it is all said and done, the Florida Department of Elder Affairs estimates that those over 65 are a $2.8 billion net tax benefit for the state.

These individuals are worth more than just their weight in gold, though. They also serve as a valuable patron of the arts, the story-tellers for the next generation, and a resource for wisdom and perspective.

“They are the history-takers,” said Guttman. “There’s not a lot new under the sun, and senior citizens recognize that. They help ease the transition to adulthood for younger adults by providing perspective on relationships, politics and life in general.”

Guttman went on to say that, while seniors may no longer be the producers of tangible goods that they once were, they do garner an appreciation for the finer things in life, they promote culture, encourage conversation and preservation, and remain quite active in the community.

“It’s a bit of a misnomer that seniors are old and addled,” said Clark. “In fact, only about 5 percent of this population are in long-term care and can’t really be active in the community. The others remain quite active, assuming they have access to quality healthcare and transportation.”

That is where both the Center on Aging and the Council on Aging come in. Both agencies work as tireless advocates for senior needs in the area, as well as cheerleaders for all that older populations contribute to the state.

The Center on Aging works on both outreach and research covering a variety of topics, like family issues and Alzheimer’s care and care-giving strategies. They also collaborate with Azalea Trace, a retirement community in Pensacola. They continually provide workshops for citizens to remain vibrant members of the region and understand how their new limitations—such as decreased driving reaction time—fit into the life they still desire to live.

The Council on Aging prides itself on helping seniors in both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties live safe, healthy and independent lives. The Council provides a number of ancillary services, such as in-home programs and services like Meals on Wheels, Alzheimer’s respite care, an adult day health care center, case management, a foster grandparent program, and more.

Both organizations also advocate strongly for issues that are near and dear to the lives of seniors and their families. For example, John Clark at the Council on Aging spends a great deal of time promoting the benefits of at-home care over institutional care.

“It’s better for the citizen and it’s better for the tax-payer,” said Clark. “It’s between $8,000 and $12,000 cheaper for the individual to receive at-home care than it is for them to be permanently institutionalized. Also, they get to stay with their family and in their own familiar surroundings.”

The graying of our state has certainly served us well for the past several decades, but is the relationship between the economy and the population reaching a tipping point? Right now, the ratio of taxpaying workers to retirees is about 3:1. This is due in part to older workers who are staying in the labor force longer, a result of improved health outcomes for seniors, but, also a necessity because of savings and home value distillation in the wake of the Great Recession.

However, the Florida Assisted Living Federation of America estimates that ratio will shrink to 2:1 by 2050 as more seniors continue to migrate to our shores, older populations that had been working slowly become unable, and younger workers are simply not replacing their grandparents’ high salaries through the application of highly skilled vocations.

Seniors will spend down their savings and a lower standard of living could soon become the norm for those in their 80s and beyond, which would result in higher healthcare costs that are not being repaid by the younger population’s tax contributions.

On a regional basis, these economic issues are more likely to affect southern- and mid-Florida before the Northwest. Right now, the median age for those counties is already between 50 and 62.

With these possible problems on the horizon, it is important to take steps to mitigate these issues now rather than later. That is why the Center and Council on Aging continue to advocate for preventative and sustainable healthcare, independence and viable public transportation options. The more autonomy and power we can give to seniors now, the more older populations can adapt to technological and economic changes, the more they will continue to be Florida’s secret economic powerhouse.

More than any other infrastructural weakness in Northwest Florida, both Guttman and Clark consider transportation of paramount concern.

“If you’re not mobile, you’re in trouble,” said Guttman. “You have to be able to adapt. That’s why we continue talking to community partners to make the region older-adult-friendly. What’s good for older adults is really good for everyone. Longer street-crossing times, for example, helps pregnant women and kids, too. There’s a tendency to think of the youth and Millenials when planning cities and looking to the future. But, when we think about youth, let’s think about the older adults, too. They like entertainment and restaurants, too. In that way, we can have a truly inter-generational community. Let’s start thinking of our state in that context and begin giving back to the seniors who have given and continue to give us so much.”