The Aging of Martha’s Vineyard: What history teaches us


History teaches us that significant demographic shifts in the population of the U.S. are accompanied by major changes in the communities which have experienced these shifts. For example, in the latter decades of the 18th and early 19th centuries, large urban areas such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston, with the surge of immigration from Europe, saw dramatic shifts in the population distribution between native-born and foreign-born, with the latter increasing dramatically. Nearby, Boston, as an illustration of the demographic shift, doubled in total population between 1880 and 1920, largely due to the increase in the foreign-born living in the city. 

In virtually all of the cities noted above, the demographic shift required them to make internal and operational changes to accommodate the reality they faced. In many cases, these immigrants were poor, unskilled, and spoke no English. The sheer size of the shift in the number of people required owners and developers to increase — in a short timespan — the number of multifamily housing units to respond to the need. New public schools had to be built to accommodate the rapidly growing urban population, and many schools were offering vocational courses for the first time, in response to the changing demographics. Perhaps one of the most visible changes of the rapid growth was a social reform movement, which led to the building of private, philanthropic settlement houses to teach vocational skills, advocate for better living conditions, and provide some limited healthcare. The response of American communities to the population changes of the early 20th century made America the vibrant country it is today. 

The demographic shift described above and the changes that cities had to make a century ago in response to the shift can teach a valuable lesson As the aging demographic change on Martha’s Vineyard continues in the upward trajectory now evident, the community has an opportunity to stay ahead of the “change curve” needed. This is important for two reasons. One, by engaging in anticipatory planning, the Island can gauge and determine what community needs will emerge to address the basic survival needs of the elderly population, and two, by investing in the future we can maximize the benefits from the investments we make. We on Martha’s Vineyard have a unique opportunity to help set the standard for what makes a community truly “age friendly.”

Fortunately, aided by early research which projected the demographic shift, a planning initiative was undertaken by Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard, which identified the key priority areas to respond to the aging demographic change. These areas include physical and mental healthcare and access, housing, transportation, caregiving needs and support, and community engagement. In short, going forward — how we address the structural, organizational, and delivery changes needed in each area will serve as a measure of how well those who live on Martha’s Vineyard will view the Island’s commitment to becoming a truly aging friendly community. 

The early 20th century response on the part of urban areas to make changes to accommodate the demographic shift which was earlier cited necessitated having them incur financial costs needed to expand the physical and social infrastructure of these communities. In retrospect, few would deny these costs were also accompanied with great benefits in the overall quality of life. The changes that will be necessary on Martha’s Vineyard to respond to the aging demographic will come with costs, but properly managed, great benefits as well. Our motivation to incur the costs should be driven by the words of a great American, Hubert Humphrey: “The way we treat our elderly in the twilight of their lives is a measure of the quality of a nation.”

In a future essay, we will look more closely at our most immediate needs.


This essay is the second in 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. Both writers are active members of Healthy Aging M.V.