Plans for an older population presented today

The Anchors, home of the Edgartown Council on Aging. — Ralph Stewart

Baby boomers have been making waves in America for more than 60 years. The final decades of their lives, however, will likely be their biggest splash and Martha’s Vineyard will feel its impact more than many other communities.

Nicknamed the “silver tsunami” by social scientists, an unprecedented number of Americans who become 65 years and older over the next two decades will reshape every facet of American life, particularly related to medical services, housing, transportation and support services, according to planners.

Demographers and gerontologists alike believe that the Island will be an epicenter of the aging tsunami as a result of an existing older year-round population and the number of 50- to 60-year-old seasonal residents who are planning to make the Island their retirement home.

According to a recent assessment by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), 16.3 percent of Island residents are 65 or older, compared with 13.8 percent for the state. The percentage of older Islanders is expected to grow to be nearly 25 per cent of the population by the end of this decade, with another ten years of growth in that demographic to come.

For the past several months, Ann Bookman of Brandeis University in Waltham, a consultant on aging, has been working with The Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative (MVDC), an umbrella organization for nonprofit agencies, and the Dukes County Health Council on an initiative known as Healthy Aging Community, an effort to begin planning for massive changes in housing, transportation, and other elder service needs.

As part of that initiative, they have created a healthy aging task force that has been working with a team of students from the University of Massachusetts Medical School/Graduate School of Nursing Rural Scholars Group.

The students have been interviewing representatives of Island nonprofits, medical and service agencies, and residents in order to gather information and describe the expected demand for additional resources in order to begin planning for an aging community.

The Rural Scholars team will present preliminary findings at a public meeting Thursday, October 24, at the West Tisbury Public Safety Building on State Road. The Healthy Aging group will report at 4 pm.

A second scholar group, sponsored by Mass in Motion, has been tracking the health and fitness of Island youth. That group will report following the aging group.

The Dukes County Health Council, MVDC, and the healthy aging task force will hold a day-long workshop to discuss a variety of reports and present recommendations on Friday, November 8 at the Dreamland ballroom in Oak Bluffs.

Significant impact

“The impact is enormous,” Peter Temple, executive director of the MVDC, told the Times. “This surge in population will completely change the complexion of the Island. By 2030, one in three residents will be over 65. By 2040 and 2050, we’ll need additional transportation solutions. The impact on town budgets and on health and human services, not to mention affordable housing for the new workforce of caregivers, will be enormous.”

Ms. Bookman presented an outline of the magnitude of the challenges faced by the Island at a workshop on June 17 that focused on the healthy aging community concept. She noted that the population of 65+ Island residents has already grown by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010 and those residents aged 45–64 are currently 50.5 percent of the total population here, according to a report on the workshop.

A Healthy Aging model on-Island will include simple things like accessibility to buildings and much more complex and expensive steps such as providing affordable and useful housing for poorer seniors as well as retirees who will bring a solid financial portfolio to their retirement here, she said.

In her June presentation, which also elicited public comment, both Ms. Bookman and residents made pointed reference to the need for collegiality and sharing among six towns which historically have gone their own way.

“Tell the scholars (that) we know we are six islands connected by land. We are very aware of this problem and they don’t need to tell us about it. Look for multi‐town models,” the report quoted one unidentified participant.

Ms. Bookman indicated that healthy aging models are critically important in rural areas with limited resources, and she noted that the problem is compounded here because the rural community is also an island.

Ms. Bookman said that nearly three dozen Healthy Aging communities are in place around the country, including some in rural states.

Frank predictions

According to a report of the June meeting, “Few places will feel the impact of this shift as much as Martha’s Vineyard, which has traditionally skewed older than the state and the nation. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Island Plan, published in 2009, said the year-round population between the ages of 60 and 70 will triple by 2020 (based on 2000 Census data), and that does not include an expected significant increase of seasonal boomer residents retiring to the Vineyard and year-round families bringing their off-Island aging parents here for end-of-life care.

“However, as an isolated rural community with a seasonal resort economy, the Island does not offer the best environment in which to age. Many homes were not designed with senior safety in mind, and many are isolated on long dirt roads far away from limited public transportation. Living, medical and housing costs are extremely high, so it’s expensive to live here, which also makes it hard for Island Health and Human Service agencies to attract needed workers.”

The report also addressed the expectations of the Island’s elderly. “Many commentators indicate that the “baby boomers” are not willing to accept the same options that their parents had. They want to be active, involved and living at home as long as they can. At the same time, they are also often the primary caregivers to their parents, so they know firsthand how difficult it can be to access and pay for needed services, coordinate care, or make difficult end-of-life decisions.

“To meet these challenges, we need to create a healthy community for our aging population. Healthy Aging is the development and maintenance of optimal mental, social and physical well-being and function in older adults. This is most likely to be achieved when communities use a holistic approach, where health services and all community programs are used to prevent or minimize disease.”