Boston’s Older Population: Increasing in Racial Diversity, but Quality of Life is Shaped by Racism, Discrimination

A new report from UMass Boston identifies aging equity among Boston residents

The number of Boston residents aged 60 and older has increased by more than one-third in the last eight years and more than half of older residents are persons of color. However the experiences of these older residents differ substantially depending on race, ethnicity and gender, and challenges their abilities to thrive.

A new report, “Aging Strong for All: Examining Aging Equity in the City of Boston,” by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston, documents disparities across three dimensions that impact quality of life — economic security, health, social engagement — and identifies opportunities for stakeholders to ensure an environment in which “aging strong” is possible for all Boston residents. Jan Mutchler

“It has never been more critical to strategically pursue greater equity in the aging experience of Boston residents,” says Jan Mutchler, PhD, director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at UMass Boston, a professor in the Department of Gerontology and one of the study’s authors. “The numbers of older adults are increasing and stakeholders share a growing recognition of the powerful ways in which inequity, racism, and discrimination shape health outcomes and the aging experience, amplifying the need to examine and remediate disparities in aging.”

The report identifies substantial disparities across racial and ethnic groups, such as:

Economic security

  • Poverty rates are especially high among Asian Americans and Latinos, and more than one-third of these residents age 60 or older live in households with incomes below the federal poverty line.
  • Sizable gaps differentiate racial groups. For example, while a similar share of non-Hispanic White, Black and Native American people aged 66 or older receive Social Security benefits, percentages receiving Social Security are considerably lower for Latinos and Asian Americans.
  • Housing costs in Boston place a heavy burden on older residents and half or more of renters age 60 or older pay more than 30% of their incomes for housing. Fewer homeowners bear such a heavy cost burden for housing, but older Black, Latino and Native American homeowners are at amplified risk for being cost-burdened.

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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

Book Investigates the Pandemic and its impact on Older Adults

Journal of Aging and Social Policy special edition examines scope,
impact and lessons drawn from Covid-19 for older adults

A special double-issue of the Journal of Aging and Social Policy (JASP) that focused on Covid-19 has been released as a book. “Older Adults and Covid-19: Implications for Aging Policy and Practice” provides 28 articles written by leading gerontology researchers. The authors offer perspectives from around the globe on a host of issues surrounding the virus and its impact on older adults, their families, caregivers, and communities.

Edward Alan Miller

Editor-in-chief Edward A. Miller

Originally published in June 2020, this issue’s release as a book by Taylor & Francis Publishing indicates that the critical questions raised and the policy changes proposed to protect this vulnerable population moving forward deserve continued attention.

“This book is important because nearly everything addressed in the special issue six months ago is still relevant today which reflects poorly in our response as a nation,” said Edward Alan Miller, PhD, a professor at UMass Boston and editor-in-chief of JASP.

As Miller points out in the book’s introduction, older adults have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Exposure to the virus has resulted in older adults dying in disproportionately higher numbers, especially in long-term care facilities. Government-mandated actions to lessen the impact of the virus on older adults have had adverse consequences such as increased social isolation, separation from family members, enhanced economic risk, and challenges getting basic needs met. 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

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