How will future generations of elders in Sarasota fit into the suburban mold created for them by the "greatest generation" — street after palm-lined street of single-family tract homes, often bordering golf courses?
Will they dynamite the template and start all over again or find a way to make these spread-out neighborhoods more hospitable to aging in place and social connectedness?
Bolton Anthony — founder of a nonprofit elder community organization in Chapel Hill, N.C., known as Second Journey — threw out this challenge in November to more than 60 interested parties at a workshop by the Pines Education Institute, "Creating Community in Later Life."
The suburban model, he said, is "not sustainable anymore," at a time when post-retirement life can span three decades. Baby boomers' desire and need to remain engaged in their communities, he said, "is going to create different kinds of places."
Anthony gave a nod to the New Urbanist ideal of social interactivity championed by the architect Andres Duany, who has weighed in repeatedly on Sarasota's downtown planning process.
"I guess he regularly comes here," Anthony said mildly. "You pay him $50,000 and he gives you great advice and you don't do anything about it."
Anthony discussed some other ways in which older Americans are living interdependently to support each other through the deficits or illnesses that can come with age. About half of the people in the room were familiar with co-housing — a concept where a group of residents design and inhabit their own campus of shared and private spaces — which has yet to take off in Florida.
Another idea — pocket neighborhoods, where small homes surround a common green — is more developer-driven, and could work in urban areas of Sarasota that are ripe for infill projects, he said.
But perhaps the most apt approach for many parts of Southwest Florida, he said, is the village concept, where the connections among homes are created by committed neighbors and social service agencies.
"It's one of the few things that is not infrastructure-tied," Bolton said. In a wilderness of single-family homes, he asked, "how do you re-establish those networks? If you do not have a network, aging in place can become aging in jail. So it's worse than a nursing home. I live in a neighborhood where I had to do that work; the built environment doesn't support informal connections."
The workshop was part of an ambitious visioning process for Pines of Sarasota, which announced that it hopes to devote an eight-acre parcel to a new kind of elder housing.
"You have the opportunity to create an experiment where the people who live there see themselves as pioneers," Anthony said of the vacant land. "You have the opportunity for demonstrating what an elder community can be at its best."
Barbara Peters Smith writes about aging for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Read her blog at www.heraldtribune.com/category/blog/new-wrinkles/