Transforming the Future of Aging

Bei Wu works toward improving health status through research and policy

If the world of academic gerontology had a rock star, it would be Bei Wu, MS ‘97, PhD ’00.

Recognized for her extensive research and pursued by top tier universities, Wu has become an international leader in the field since graduating from the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Department of Gerontology. Add the years in policy work before earning her doctorate and Wu chuckles that, having spent more than half of her life in the field of gerontology, she herself is now experiencing the aging process.

“I’ve become my own study subject,” Wu says.

Today, Wu is the Director of Global Health and Aging Research at the Rory Meyers College of Nursing, and Director for Research at the Hartford Institute for Geriatric Nursing at New York University (NYU) and the inaugural co-director of NYU’s Aging Incubator, a university-wide aging initiative.

Given her considerable success in gerontology, it’s fitting she credits her grandmother — with whom she was extremely close — for nudging her into the field. Born in Shanghai, Wu’s parents left her and her brother in their grandparents’ care when the two were young. After college, Wu accepted a research position with the Shanghai Commission on Aging only after prompting by her grandmother.

“At the time, very few people thought aging would be a challenging issue in the future,” Wu says.

But writing policy briefs and launching studies on intergenerational support with the United Nations Population Fund convinced Wu to pursue graduate studies. With no options available in China, she chose UMass Boston.

“UMass Boston has had a significant impact on my career,” Wu says. “The gerontology program has a critical mass of excellent faculty.” Continue reading

Celebrate the New Year with a Free Film Series

Programs offering community for older adults available online through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston

Watching a funny movie and discussing it with others may seem like an activity we can’t participate in given the Covid-19 pandemic. But, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UMass Boston has a film series to keep you engaged and connected all winter. The films are free and available for anyone to download from home.

Jim Hermelbracht

This January and February, OLLI is pleased to offer prospective and current members several programs free of charge to be enjoyed in the comfort and safety of your home. Part of UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute, OLLI provides lifelong learning, trips, and social activities for individuals over age 50.

“We are creating opportunities for all members — and future members — to stay engaged during the winter,” says Jim Hermelbracht, Director of OLLI at UMass Boston. “All programs will be held via Zoom and are free.”

Winter programs take place in January and February and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Members are encouraged to use the OLLI online registration system to sign up for events. Non-members interested in exploring OLLI’s programs or the winter film series should contact the OLLI office (ollireg@gmail.com) to register.

This year’s winter film series, “Exploring Humor: How Funny Is It?” runs for six weeks, beginning Tuesday, January 12. The movies are all free and available on Kanopy. Attendees may choose to watch films any time and join the group on Zoom for discussion and conversation each Tuesday at 12:30 pm or watch the film with others via Zoom at 10:30 am. Instructions to download the movies will be provided. Continue reading

Elder Index at Work: Helping Advocates Address Healthcare Affordability in Washington State

multigeneration portraitThis article is one in a series of stories about how people across the country are using the Elder Index to understand the true cost of living for older adults and its economic implications. If you know someone who would like to receive information about these stories, send us a note at gerontologyinstitute@umb.edu.

By Taryn Hojlo

Medicare is an important resource for millions of older Americans, but that benefit isn’t free and it certainly doesn’t eliminate all other healthcare expenses elders face.

In Washington State, more than a million people were enrolled for Medicare benefits in 2018 and that number has been climbing, as it has across the country as the United States continues to grow older. Some of those people have found Medicare a particular economic challenge.

Northwest Health Law Advocates, a non-profit organization based in Seattle, is focused on older Washington residents who saw some existing healthcare-related benefits eliminated once they enrolled in Medicare. Recently, it has been using the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Elder Index to supplement research and advocacy work around the issue.

“We call it the Medicare cliff,” said Ann Vining, a staff attorney at the organization that has been advocating for affordable, quality health care for all Washington residents since 1999. “If you’re in some relatively lower income brackets, you have some access to some subsidies that you lose when you go onto Medicare.” Continue reading

Elder Index Shows Limits of Social Security to Help Older Adults Afford Basic Cost of Living

Jan MutchlerSocial Security is a critical economic resource for most older Americans but those payments don’t cover even a bare-bones budget in a single county in the United States.

The degree to which Social Security payments can help elders make ends meet depends both on individual circumstances and basic geography. An updated analysis, using the Elder Index™ developed at UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute, recently examined Social Security’s ability to cover basic elder expenses in every U.S. county and state.

“Social Security is incredibly important to older Americans as an economic safety net but it doesn’t fully cover the cost of living anywhere,” said Professor Jan Mutchler. “The effectiveness of that safety net varies a great deal across the county and among individuals. In many cases, it falls far short.” Continue reading

Nearly Two-Thirds of Older Black Americans Can’t Afford to Live Alone Without Help – and it’s Even Tougher for Latinos

Jan MutchlerThis article originally appeared on The Conversation, a non-profit independent online news organization.

By Jan Mutchler

Older Americans who want to live independently face serious economic challenges. Half who live alone don’t have enough income to afford even a bare-bones budget in their home communities, and nearly 1 in 4 couples face the same problem.

Those numbers add up to at least 11 million older adults who are struggling to make ends meet, a new analysis shows.

The numbers are worse for older people of color. Dramatically higher percentages of Black, Latino and Asian older adults live on incomes that don’t meet their cost of living, even with Social Security. That can mean skipping needed health care, not having enough food, living in unhealthy conditions or having to move in with family.

These disparities often reflect lifelong disadvantages that add up as people of color encounter structural racism and discrimination that shape their ability to buy property and save for the future.

To calculate realistic rates of economic insecurity and estimate the disparities, my colleagues and I used the Elder Index, created by the University of Massachusetts Boston to measure the true cost of living for older adults. It tracks expenses for housing, health care, transportation, food and other basics, county by county. We paired the index with state-level income data to determine the percentage of people who don’t have enough income to cover their cost of living. Continue reading

Reach Out Massachusetts Mobilizes Communities to Combat Social Isolation

The desire to spend time alone is a natural and even healthy urge. But, seeking time alone and social isolation, are not the same.

Social isolation — defined as a lack of social connections — is considered a serious public health risk and can impair one’s physical and mental health. Older adults are at increased risk for social isolation because they are more likely to have lost a spouse and close friends, live alone, suffer from a chronic illness, or have limited mobility.

To combat this devastating public health problem, the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston and AARP Massachusetts have created a resource guide highlighting ways in which many Massachusetts cities and towns are already addressing social isolation in their communities. The guide is the first completed project of the Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness & Build Community. The task force is co-led by Sandra Harris, president of AARP Massachusetts, and Caitlin Coyle, Ph.D., the lead author of the resource guide and a research fellow at the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston. Continue reading

Elder Index at Work: Defending Property Tax-Relief Programs for Older Homeowners in New Jersey

multigeneration portraitThis article is one in a series of stories about how people across the country are using the Elder Index to understand the true cost of living for older adults and its economic implications. If you know someone who would like to receive information about these stories, send us a note at gerontologyinstitute@umb.edu.

Late this spring, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy faced a big problem that was all too familiar to other governors across America. The staggering economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had created a state budget crisis, with unemployment soaring and new annual revenue projections falling billions of dollars short.

Murphy approached the problem by moving back the start of New Jersey’s next fiscal year from July to October and passing a three-month stop-gap budget to tide the state over. Included in the short-term budget: Cuts to two important property tax-relief programs that help older adults in New Jersey afford to remain in their homes.

This was no small detail. New Jersey homeowners pay the nation’s highest property tax rates, about twice the U.S. average. Nearly 580,000 homeowners benefitted from one of the  programs under the axe and 158,000 others took advantage of the other. Both programs primarily benefitted older homeowners and the combined impact of the cuts was expected to exceed $480 million.

Melissa Chalker, executive director of the New Jersey Foundation For Aging, understood all that. Along with AARP New Jersey and other advocates, Chalker immediately launched a campaign to convince the governor and state legislators to restore the critical programs. One of her key tools in advocacy calls and letters: The Elder Index. Continue reading

Remembering Frank Caro: Inspiring Leader and Key Figure in Development of UMass Boston Gerontology Program

Frank CaroBy Len Fishman and Jeffrey Burr

The field of gerontology has lost a pioneer with the death of Professor Emeritus Frank Caro, an inspiring and beloved figure at UMass Boston. He died on October 2, at age 84. Frank was an architect of one of the world’s most influential gerontology programs. More than that, he was its heart and soul.

Frank wore many hats at UMass Boston, a former director of the Gerontology Institute and chair of the Gerontology Department in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. He also helped found the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston and the Management of Aging Services Master’s program.

Frank is remembered as a consummate scholar-administrator in the field of higher education. He guided the Gerontology Department through its early years with a steady hand and a determination to make its educational programs excel. He deftly mentored many doctoral students and junior faculty members during his years on our campus. Beyond his many great professional achievements, he was known for his kindness, thoughtfulness and humility. Continue reading

UMass Boston Report Finds Far Greater Rates of Economic Insecurity Among Older Adults of Color

Jan MutchlerThe challenging goal of elder economic security – having enough income to live independently and afford a no-frills budget in later life —  is dramatically more difficult for older adults of color across America, new research from the University of Massachusetts Boston shows.

Half of all older adults living alone and 23 percent of older couples are unable to achieve that goal and live with some degree of economic insecurity, according to the McCormack Graduate School’s Gerontology Institute. A new report calculating racial disparities within those numbers shows rates of economic insecurity among Black, Latino and Asian older adults far exceeding those of white adults and the overall national average.

The report also details the economic insecurity levels of older adults of color in individual states and the states in which racial disparities are greatest.

“Economic security is a serious problem for older adults across the United States,” said professor Jan Mutchler, the lead author of the UMass Boston report. “But the situation is much more dire among older adults of color and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has almost certainly made their economic circumstances even worse.” Continue reading

Economic Hardship From COVID-19 Will Hit Minority Seniors the Most

This article first appeared over the summer on The Conversation website. Marc Cohen is co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston. Jane Tavares is a research fellow at the center.

By Marc Cohen and Jane Tavares

For Americans 60 and older, COVID-19 is widespread and deadly. Its economic impact could also be devastating.

With a recession fast developing, much of the attention on the downturn focuses on working-age adults, but many older Americans – with less time to make up for financial losses – will suffer the most.

I am a clinical professor of gerontology. My co-author is a research fellow in gerontology. We believe that recent history, specifically the Great Recession of 2008-09, will demonstrate what’s at stake. Continue reading