Who'd have thought South Florida's sandy beaches and sunny lifestyle could take a back seat in senior appeal to the likes of Provo, Utah, and Madison, Wis.?
But it has — and what's more, 37 large metro areas are better places to grow old than this piece of paradise, according to a recent study by the Milken Institute in California, which ranked 100 of the nation's largest metropolitan areas. Even South Florida's weather came in a paltry 15th.
The study's authors considered 78 factors — from cultural activities to the number of grocery stores — in computing their rankings. The South Florida metro area, which the survey considers from Miami to Jupiter, landed at No. 38.
"It's not all about weather and playing golf," said Anusuya Chatterjee, a co-author of the study.
Successful aging is also about crime rates, the number of caregivers who can assist the elderly and the percentage of hospitals with geriatric services — measures in which South Florida fared poorly. People do look for good weather, golf and affordability when they first retire, said Dave Bruns, spokesman for AARP Florida. But their priorities change as they age, and that's where Florida comes up short.
"This is a wake-up call for Florida policy makers," Bruns said. "The legislature should pay much more attention to nourishing an array of long-term services that help people remain in their communities."
More than 3.2 million Florida residents are 65 or older, giving this state a bigger share of that population than any other state in the nation.
It's a population the state and its businesses court heavily, because of its spending power and ability to withstand economic bumps in the road. But when older people get ill or incapacitated, they need help and that isn't always easy to obtain. The wait lists to deliver help to the poorest and most frail of these seniors has grown into the tens of thousands statewide, according to the state's health officials.
The wait for service that sends a medical assistant to help bathe or drive someone to the doctor can stretch for months, in some cases, even years. In Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, the waiting list to get one home-delivered meal is more than 500 long.
"If you're a state and retirement is your second-largest business right behind tourism, this is something you'd think would be in your DNA," said Rep. Mark S. Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "Florida should be a model of how we treat our seniors."
The Milken study — known as Best Cities for Successful Aging and which used data already compiled by a number of different agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI — produced overall rankings, but also divided its search for the best places to age into two age groups: 65- to 79-year-olds and the 80-and-older set.
When broken down that way, South Florida had more to offer the younger group, earning a rank of 35, compared to the ranking of 41 for those 80 and older.
The area's crime rate, the number of seniors living below the poverty line and the investment in transportation for seniors dragged down the scores.
"If you have two seniors living together, say a husband and wife, and only one of them can drive, when one of them loses that ability, how do they get to the pharmacy? To the grocery store? What do they do? It's very difficult for the 85-year-old person to navigate a transportation system like a bus at the corner or a train," said Robert Beck, a lobbyist for the state's Area Agencies on Aging.
The area also scored poorly regarding the number of public libraries, money spent on seniors and availability of mental health professionals.
Anita Cianciulli of Greenacres, who moved here from New York in 1981 and retired in 1988, shrugged off these detractors. The sidewalks don't ice in the winter, the cost of living is lower and something as small as a fruit stand makes South Florida a good option, she said.
"It's a definite improvement for old age," Cianciulli, 73, said. "(Better) than sitting up in the cold weather by yourself."
The study gave the region high marks for having plenty of banks and grocery stores. Also, the unemployment rate for those over 65 is low, and they can spend their money on a good selection of museums, symphonies and the like.
"In the last few years, Florida has been suffering in economic terms," Chatterjee said. "In coming years, I believe that Florida might come up really high in the rankings."
A better economy has helped the winners on the list better serve seniors, particularly when it comes to health-care services, Chatterjee said.
One bright spot for South Florida is it outranked Jacksonville (40th) and Tampa (65th) areas. And if seniors are looking for a smaller setting, Gainesville ranked sixth among the 259 small metro areas. But picking up and moving is out of the question for some local seniors.
"I'll stay here and age successfully, not in Utah," said Charlotte McCourt, 86, of Palm Beach
"What's in Utah?" asked Lee Malkin, 65, of West Palm Beach.