GULFPORT — Who are Gulfport's seniors?
That's the question on the table as the city's Multipurpose Senior Center and the foundation that helps support it begin developing a long-range vision of how best to meet the needs of a shifting population.
Michael Audino, president of the Senior Center Foundation — a nonprofit organization that raises money for the Senior Center — has asked to work with the city in developing a strategy that will meet the city's changing demographic.
"Many of Gulfport's seniors will continue to need the services the center offers, but there's a growing number of residents who, though recognized demographically as senior citizens, are either unable to participate, or not interested in what the center offers," Audino said. "They don't see themselves as part of the senior population, and we need to understand how best to meet their needs."
The numbers tell the story. The 2000 census listed Gulfport's population as 12,527. Residents between the ages of 55 and 64 accounted for 11 percent of the population; those 65 to 74 years of age accounted for 11.5 percent; and Gulfport's median age was 47.3.
In 2010, though Gulfport's population dropped slightly to 12,029, residents between the ages of 55 to 64 rose to 17 percent; those 65 to 74 years of age accounted for 12 percent of the population. The median age also rose, to 50.9.
Like Audino, City Manager Jim O'Reilly is aware of the shift in population and attributes much of it to people "aging in place."
"Many people moved here years ago to raise their families. Now they're over 50 and, instead of moving away, they're staying," he said. "As our population changes, we need to look at how that affects the focus of the center."
To help identify what Gulfport's changing senior community needs and wants, O'Reilly, his staff and the foundation will develop a series of questions and begin to solicit input from the community.
"It's important we know how residents feel about the senior center," O'Reilly said. "We need them to help us determine what direction we should take."
Currently, dozens of Gulfport's older residents regularly use the center for lunch and socialization. Retired men and women gather daily for bingo, card games and general conversation. Many participate in daytime classes and workshops, from art to computers to line dancing, and a sizeable number volunteer to help with the center's activities.
O'Reilly has given a lot of thought to the community's changing demographics, and how the senior center may need to shift its focus.
"Gulfport's Multipurpose Senior Center will always be a safety net for many of our residents who have no where else to turn," he said. "But we need to look at who Gulfport's senior community is now, and what they will look like in the next 10 to 20 years."
Audino thinks the city is caught in a 1965 model of what a senior citizen looks like, or acts like.
"Gulfport is an increasingly diverse community," he said. "The numbers reflect that. We need to think differently about what aging looks like if the center is to continue to remain relevant. And we need a strategy that addresses that shift.
"We need a long-term vision for the center,'' he said. "Right now, we don't know what that looks like."
O'Reilly said that getting feedback offers some challenges.
"It won't be as simple as putting a questionnaire on the city's website," he said. "We need to reach everyone — including those who aren't hooked into the technology but whose ideas are vital to the senior center's future.
"We need to learn from the community," he said.
Diane Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.