The Aging of Martha’s Vineyard: Economic benefits

Under the leadership of Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard, collaborative efforts are underway to move the Island to be a more age-friendly community. The major impetus behind these efforts is the realization that the Island as a community is becoming older. This fact necessitates major adaptations in housing, healthcare, transportation, and other elder services. Movement toward becoming an age-friendly community, defined by the World Health Organization as one that encourages active aging by optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people age, is a process that involves promoting community changes to meet the needs of older residents. These changes will also produce valuable outcomes or benefits to people of all ages. In terms of economic outcomes alone, as noted by Eillie Anzilottio, “our aging population can be an economic powerhouse — if we let it” (Fast Company, March 2017).

To rigorously determine the measurable outcomes and benefits of the actions taken to produce an age-friendly Martha’s Vineyard requires engaging in a systematic cost-benefit analysis. This process involves quantifying the costs and benefits of a program or a project, which can then be used to reach a decision on its net value. However, even in the absence of a formal cost-benefit analysis, benefits can be identified and assessed. The following are several areas of economic benefits of becoming an age-friendly community: 

  • Health and mental health — Open, affordable, and integrated health care system, including preventive healthcare education (i.e. earlier screenings, advice on medications, dieting, and early diagnoses of dementia), falls prevention training, and expanded use of geriatric-trained healthcare providers will lower the overall cost of healthcare to families and to the Island community.
  • Housing — Structural modifications to existing inhabited housing (i.e., access ramps, bathtub safety bars), expanded supply of cost-affordable housing, expanded communal living options for seniors, and increased in-home support for vulnerable seniors will enable seniors to maintain their independence longer, and generate economic benefits (i.e., employment, revenues) from rehabilitation and new housing construction. Living in one’s home, even with substantial supports, is much cheaper than living in a long-term-care facility.
  • Transportation — An affordable, accessible, and convenient transportation system will be an attractive option to having the elderly rely on their cars to get places. Replacing the high cost of maintaining cars will translate into a net pocketbook savings for the elderly. Equally important, reducing driving will lessen the risks of fatalities and costly accidents among the elderly. 
  • Caregiving — The demand for informal (i.e., family members) or formal (i.e., institutional) caregiving is going to increase as the aged proportion of the population of the Island increases. Investing in formal caregiving through support and respite is considerably less costly than institutional care; moreover it can make the difference in a recipient’s ability to live at home, which is the preferred choice of most of the elderly.

The economic benefits of an aging community extend far beyond cost avoidance — as important and large as that is likely to be. An aging population brings many direct economic benefits as well. These include a larger labor force and a source for volunteers. National data reveal that many individuals over the age of 65 continue to work. In working they not only bring years of experience but also offset the community’s cost of aging by paying taxes. Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard survey of older Island residents revealed that 33 percent of respondents reported working. Older workers often are more flexible in their work hours — a particular advantage in a seasonal economy like ours. HAMV’s survey noted that of working older adults, two-thirds were part-time employees. On Martha’s Vineyard, 39 percent of older adults reported doing volunteer work, many for more than 10 hours per week. These volunteers often bring special skills developed over a lifetime to apply in their volunteer work, and often reduce having to hire professionals.

Many older adults retire to Martha’s Vineyard as full-time residents after years as seasonal residents and homeowners. These individuals generally have disposable income, which helps fuel the Island’s economy. As an example, the older age of the audiences at the Film Center, theaters, and concerts (especially during the off-season) qualitatively demonstrates the positive economic impact of this population on the Vineyard’s ability to support cultural activities. Finally, a cursory survey of traffic during the Vineyard’s shoulder seasons shows the presence of a large number of tour buses. Most of these buses are transporting older visitors on excursions. These individuals through their expenditures also contribute significantly to our economic vitality.

We acknowledge to achieve the benefits of an older population will require costs. However, costs should not be examined in isolation. We believe that the economic benefits of being an age-friendly community are large. In considering community investments, decisionmakers must consider both the benefits and their costs. By doing this, our community will be both healthier and more prosperous as it grows older.

This essay is the fourth 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.