Cindy Bui

Cindy Bui, a PhD student, is a member of the UMass Boston Gerontology team working on the Senior Academy project.

Want seniors to become more engaged in their communities and speak up effectively on issues that matter to them? Cities and towns can help by teaching their older residents some important skills and providing practical information.

Case in point: The city of Boston recently graduated the first class of its Senior Civic Academy. The class of 25 students over age 50 live in neighborhoods across Boston. They completed a 28-hour curriculum including aging policy, advocacy training and meetings with local, state and federal administrators and elected officials.

“I am on fire from these discussions,” said Joyce Durst, 72, from Mattapan, a graduate who asked questions about solar energy and the tiny home movement. “This Senior Civic Academy is a good idea. We needed this opportunity.”

The Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School co-facilitated the academy with the city of Boston Elderly Commission, helping to develop the curriculum and evaluate the program. The Tufts Health Plan Foundation and AARP were also important partners in the program.

“Older adults are the foundation of our city, and it’s important that we empower all residents to become effective advocates for themselves and their communities,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who was on hand to congratulate the academy’s first graduating class. “This Senior Civic Academy gives older Bostonians the tools, contacts, and resources to make their voices heard.”

The Senior Civic Academy was formed in response to one of 75 action-items laid out in Boston’s Age-Friendly Action Plan, developed last year with the assistance of UMass Boston gerontologists. Students of the academy heard from over 40 speakers over the course of four days through presentations, panel discussions and workshops.

Now UMass Boston researchers are working with the Massachusetts Council on Aging to adapt the Boston academy and develop a similar product that could be offered to communities statewide.

“What makes this program so exciting is that it is a tangible way to encourage civic engagement and self-advocacy,” said Caitlin Coyle, a research fellow at UMass Boston and adjunct assistant professor of gerontology. “Although adaptations are needed, the core elements of this example are scalable for use in other communities.”