A year ago, Tom Esselman took charge of an organization for which he couldn’t quite define the purpose.
The Institute for the Ages was born out of a SCOPE (Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence) initiative that examined the significance of being the oldest, large county in the nation. It took two years for the institute to secure funding, locate office space and, finally, hire a director — Esselman, who, in July 2012, left his job as an innovation leader with Hallmark to head the group. Esselman, then, was tasked with nailing down what exactly he would be directing.
In the first six months, he focused on making connections locally and nationally, with the knowledge that the organization was supposed to create profit-generating projects that addressed the needs of older people. The national part was relatively easy: Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Phillips, Motorola and Hallmark all expressed interest in interacting with older people. Hooking the locals, however, proved to be the bigger challenge.
In January, the institute took on its first project, organizing a pilot study for San Francisco-based technology company Lively to test a product that tracked the movement pattern of seniors. It was in organizing this program — and seeing the positive reaction from the people who participated in it — that Esselman finally knew precisely what The Institute for the Ages aimed to accomplish.
“Connecting innovators to older adults is what we're here to do,” Esselman said. “We're here to be a connector. Up until the start of this year, I didn't really have it down that succinctly.”
The institute’s Facebook page states the group’s mission as being “to transform aging through the authentic voice of the older adult.” When the organization was founded, the assumption was tapping into that voice would be the easy part — 32% of Sarasota County residents are older than 65 years old, and 48% are older than 55.
What it found was just being adjacent to the seniors wasn’t enough.
In recruiting people to participate in that first pilot study, the staff had to be clear that its intention wasn’t to sell anything, but to be a conduit to make sure the older person’s voice was heard. This, Esselman says, is naturally appealing to a generation that often feels it is becoming more and more marginalized.
When the pilot program concluded in April, the institute had 65 people in its Community Powered Research Network, a registry of older people around Sarasota with which interested organizations can connect. Today, there are more than 900 people in the registry. Esselman believes this growth is reflective of the area’s vast potential for groups seeking to learn about aging. It also shows the broad appeal the institute now holds for the region’s older community.
The institute serves as more than just a link between older people and other organizations. Through what it calls “conversation circles,” it offers the opportunity for older people to engage with one another on topics of interest. Recent examples include “Positive Aging and Happiness,” “Meaningful Involvement” and “Technology and Aging.”
This social interaction was attractive to Youthful Energetic Seniors, a group that meets through the Evalyn Sadlier Jones branch of the YMCA. Marian Dodson, director of membership programs at the YMCA, said the group had focused on fitness for seniors, but was missing a social aspect. Youthful Energetic Seniors linked up with the institute to bridge this gap, connecting the members of YES to the Community Powered Research Network.
“I think it’s a tremendous value,” Dodson said of the Institute for the Ages.“I think it's a matter of recognizing the fact that people are living longer and to make sure they have the services that are necessary for maintaining quality of life,”
With the organization’s goals in sharper focus, Esselman is able concentrate on his mission for the future.
Over the next year, the institute will primarily focus on growing its registry and getting more impactful organizations to recognize the value of connecting to the older population. At the end of June, the institute signed a contract to work with Care Innovations, a joint venture between General Electric and Intel.
The most significant event in the institute’s history will be held in February, when Sarasota hosts the seventh annual International Positive Aging Conference. For Esselman, this represents both a significant short-term accomplishment and the first step toward his larger goals.
“We're ultimately looking to help businesses relocate here, to have research and development centers set up here and to see the creation of various experience centers, where things that older people do and care about can be created by people who invite the outside world to participate,” he said.
Contact Nick Friedman at [email protected].