Throughout our history, the U.S. has undergone a number of significant changes in our population. We are now in the midst of one of the most profound. We are getting older as a people — much older. Within two decades, for the first time in our history, Americans over 65 will outnumber those under the age of 18. We on Martha’s Vineyard are living this change.
In our community, the number of residents between the ages of 65 and 74 grew 63 percent between 2010 and 2016. Looking forward, projections assert that the Dukes County population over 64 will continue to grow rapidly — more than doubling between 2020 and 2060. And the oldest of us, those over 85, will triple in numbers. Perhaps the most revealing projected aging demographic is that by 2030, slightly more than a decade from now, 1 in 3 Vineyarders will be 65 or older.
Better health habits, breakthroughs in medical care, declining birth rates, and the in-migration of retirees all contribute to this aging trend in our community. We know that as communities age, their needs change. Few people over the age of 85 are free of health problems. Many will need significant help to maintain their independence. One can safely predict the need for more specialized health and social services as Martha’s Vineyard ages. The inherent limitations of living on an island with a tourism-based economy make a strain on our community resources appear inevitable.
As we age, our community will face many challenges. Fortunately, we have a grassroots community-based coalition of more than 70 individuals and organizations, Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard, engaged to address these issues. Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard is committed to making our community “age friendly.” The World Health Organization describes an “age-friendly community”: An age-friendly world enables people of all ages to actively participate in community activities and treats everyone with respect, regardless of their age. It is a place that makes it easy for older people to stay connected to people who are important to them. And it helps people stay healthy and active even at the oldest ages, and provides appropriate support to those who can no longer look after themselves.
To become an “age friendly” community, we need to understand the implications of aging — both for individuals and for the community as a whole. Too often, aging is only viewed as a burden on a community. An examination of other communities and a close look at our own shows that while the aging of a community presents challenges, there are also unappreciated benefits and opportunities. As active participants in Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard, we are writing a series of essays which will shed insight on the values and benefits as well as the challenges that come with an aging population. In addition to the demographic changes we have described, the essays will address changes needed to meet the needs of older residents, economic outcomes and benefits of aging population, the social benefits of an “age friendly” community, and human welfare and quality-of-life issues related to aging. We hope that these essays will engage our fellow Vineyarders. We believe that our wonderful home is a great place to live, and should be a great place in which to grow older.
This essay is the first of a series written by Leon L. Haley, Ph.D., and Robert Laskowski, M.D., on the aging phenomenon on Martha’s Vineyard. Haley is a professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Laskowski is a retired geriatrician and healthcare executive.