By Marc Cohen, Caitlin Coyle, James Hermelbracht, Edward Alan Miller, Jan Mutchler, and Anna-Marie Tabor
Older adults are the fastest-growing segment of the American population. In Massachusetts, adults 65 and older will make up nearly a quarter of the Commonwealth’s population by 2035. In many municipalities, older people already outnumber children. A large share of older Massachusetts residents are aging with good health, strong resources, and vibrant lives of activity and purpose. But too many of our older adults experience financial insecurity, struggle with health conditions, and experience exclusion and isolation.
As Governor-elect Maura Healey prepares to take office in January, leaders at UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute urge her to prioritize the needs and challenges of this growing population. We offer the following suggestions, some of them at low or no cost to the Commonwealth. Our suggestions are informed by years of research and community engagement in age friendly communities, aging equity, financial security, long-term services and supports, and social determinants of health.
- Every Massachusetts resident—no matter their income or zip code, their race or gender or sexuality—deserves the opportunity to age well. We encourage all departments of our state’s government to ensure that age is a crucial component of equitable policymaking and program planning. Including age as a dimension of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices helps to raise visibility of the issue.
- Massachusetts is one of the most expensive states for aging in place, resulting in many older adults struggling to cover basic expenses and stay in their homes. Using the Elder Index, a nationally recognized tool developed and managed at UMass Boston, the new administration can compare the costs of housing, food, transportation, healthcare, and more for older residents, county by county across the Commonwealth. The new administration can use these cost-of-living data to build an agenda that includes helping lower-income older people afford necessities, such as ending the SNAP gap for food assistance, and encouraging the creation of affordable options for those who want to downsize their homes.
- Over half of Massachusetts residents aged 60-69, and nearly one out of five aged 70 and older, are working or looking for work. Our state can do more to fight ageism in the workplace and educate employers about the value of keeping and attracting older workers. We can encourage age-friendly business environments in which flexible positions are created along with phased retirement pathways and reverse-mentorship programs connecting young and old employees. As an employer, the Statehouse is a great place to start.
- Most Massachusetts residents will need some form of long-term care at some point in their lives, but most of us won’t be able to afford it. Massachusetts can join several other states working on innovative public-private financing models for long-term care. UMass Boston gerontology researchers can lead pilot feasibility studies on, for example, offering social insurance for catastrophic long-term care expenses coupled with private insurance and savings for up-front costs.
- Massachusetts is recognized for the quality of its healthcare services, but sizable disparities in health and access to services exist for lower-income older adults and people of color. Remedying these disparities requires close attention to social determinants of health, such as quality of housing, access to transportation, and safe and walkable neighborhoods. Our work on age-friendly environments illustrates how communities and the Commonwealth can work together in support of more equitable health outcomes in later life. Innovations in the delivery of care, such as integrating basic healthcare services with low-income housing, could improve health outcomes for those most in need.
- Learning in later life promotes cognitive health and social connections. Massachusetts can do more to promote opportunities for life-long learning. We can start by facilitating free or low-cost access to state-funded universities and colleges for older adults. The intergenerational exchange between older adults and traditional age college students is an added bonus. We can also support community education and arts programs through senior centers, libraries, and other public venues. And we can bridge information equity gaps by establishing reliable internet connection in all public housing developments in the Commonwealth.
- Our senior centers and Councils on Aging serve as a crucial front door to reaching older Massachusetts residents. These agencies need greater support. Local senior centers and Councils on Aging are municipal agencies meant to serve people aged 60 and older, who represent an average of 24 percent of the population–but COAs typically receive about 2 percent of municipal budgets. Serving as trusted local resources for older people, Councils on Aging demonstrated resilience and agility during the COVID-19 pandemic as they adapted to ensure older people had safe access to food, medical assistance, and vaccines. By increasing funding for the Councils on Aging Formula Grants, COAs will have more capacity—including social service staff, bilingual staff, and volunteer coordinators who can tap the intellectual resource of older residents—to meet the needs of older residents. They can also work to ensure that information about aging and public services is delivered in culturally appropriate ways, working with adult children, faith communities, and neighborhood ambassadors.
Together, we stand ready to support Governor Healey and her administration in meeting the needs of the fast-growing population of older Massachusetts residents.
Marc Cohen, PhD, co-directs the LeadingAge Long-Term Supports & Services Center @UMass Boston, a unique partnership of the university’s applied researchers with LTSS providers, allowing both organizations to translate research into policy and practice to address the challenges and opportunities of a fast-growing older population.
Caitlin Coyle, PhD, directs the Center for Social & Demographic Research on Aging at UMass Boston. Since 2012, Coyle and her team have worked with more than 85 municipalities in Massachusetts collecting information about their older residents and developing strategic plans for improving the environments for aging.
James Hermelbracht directs the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston, which provides classes, lectures, trips, and social activities for those over age 50. OLLI is affiliated with the national network of learning in retirement programs organized by the Bernard Osher Foundation.
Edward Alan Miller, PhD, chairs the Department of Gerontology at UMass Boston and edits the nationally recognized Journal of Aging & Social Policy. Miller’s research focuses on long-term services & supports and on analyzing federal, state, and local policies affecting vulnerable populations.
Jan Mutchler, PhD, directs the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston, a collection of centers and researchers with particular expertise in age friendly communities, financial security, long-term supports & services, and more. Mutchler also manages the nationally recognized Elder Index, a measure of the true cost of aging county by county across the United States.
Anna-Marie Tabor, JD, directs UMass Boston’s Pension Action Center, which offers free research and recovery of pension benefits for residents of New England and Illinois.