The state’s top executive on elder affairs was on-Island Thursday, making the rounds in a place where the population is growing at a startling rate, and elder services are a constant consideration.
Alice Bonner, secretary for the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs, visited Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and stopped by The Times with Paddy Moore, chair of Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard and Taylor Achin, marketing assistant at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, to talk about issues surrounding aging in community, housing, dementia, and other issues facing elders.
Secretary Bonner sees the Island, where she has been a summer visitor for 25 years, as a leader in providing services to its older population. “How they’re thinking about healthy aging and aging in community by doing a strategic plan, getting partners together, thinking about things very globally and inclusively —” she said, “those are pillars of age-friendly communities that are developing across the state.”
The numbers on the Vineyard show that one out of every six people is over 65 years old. In Oak Bluffs alone, the number of people over age 65 grew by 150 between 2015 and 2017, Ms. Moore said.
“We’re very startled,” she said.
Along with programs already in place, Healthy Aging is trying to do more with students at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Ms. Moore said. Today’s young people haven’t had the same experiences she did, where there were elders living close by and, in some cases, in the same house, she said.
“That phrase ‘it takes a community to raise a child,’ well, it takes a community to help an elder,” Ms. Moore said.
Aging in community means either being able to remain in a family home or finding a senior living community that’s still part of a familiar neighborhood where a senior knows the stores, the bank, and even the local ice cream shop, she said. “Aging in community does mean aging in my neighborhood, my town, and we are very much focused on promoting that in urban areas, rural areas, and everything in between,” she said.
The state is willing and able to provide support to overcoming obstacles such as zoning laws that might be a barrier to affordable housing, or making sure that community-based programs are coordinated with those provided by healthcare givers like the hospital, she said.
A personal passion for Secretary Bonner is developing communities that are dementia-friendly. Secretary Bonner’s mother has Alzheimer’s disease. She mentioned a program in another part of the state called Purple Table reservations, which allows a caregiver to make a reservation at a restaurant for someone with dementia.
“Individuals who are living with dementia and their caregivers feel welcome and supported and understood in a community,” she said.
Ms. Moore, who had heard about the idea before, liked it as something she could possibly bring to Martha’s Vineyard. “I was just writing that down. It really needs to be introduced not in the summertime,” she said. “A lot of restaurants are closed now.”
As for housing, Secretary Bonner said she understands the needs, particularly on the Island. She planned to talk to the MVC about some of the solutions she’s seen in other places like accessory dwelling units, which allows someone in a larger home to build a secondary building. The elder can either live in the bigger house and have someone who provides some services living in the smaller house, or vice versa. On the Island, it could be a way to find housing for teachers or other service workers who are also willing to help out the elder. She also mentioned co-housing or shared housing as possible solutions to the lack of affordable housing for the older population. She described an innovative program in Easthampton that provides housing for foster children and seniors in the same neighborhood.
“It’s a great example of really valuing older adults for what they bring to the table — experience, knowledge, a love of music and art they can share with the kids,” she said.
Gov. Baker’s administration has shown a commitment to the commonwealth’s aging population, Secretary Bonner said. The governor has a council on aging, which held listening tours across the state, she said.
On the Island, she found a community engaged in the issues and planning for the future. “That’s what I love about Martha’s Vineyard — people here are talking about healthy aging, and you’re not just talking about it, you’re doing something about it,” Secretary Bonner said.
The following websites are available for elders and their caregivers to get more information.