The Aging of Martha’s Vineyard: A strategy for a healthy future

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In previous essays, we described the aging phenomenon in the U.S., and reported on how it affects Martha’s Vineyard. Between 2010 and 2016 on the Vineyard, there was a 63 percent growth of the Island’s population ages 65 to 74. The Dukes County population over 64 will more than double between 2020 and 2060, and the number of residents over 85 is projected to triple during the same period. Perhaps the most revealing statistic is that the Vineyard is rapidly approaching the time when 1 in 3 persons living on the Vineyard will be 65 and over.

To address the needs of our aging population across a wide spectrum of issues, and to meet these needs from a quality of life perspective, requires a high level of intentionality and preparedness — now, not later. For the past three years, Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard (HAMV), under the leadership of Paddy Moore, has been engaged in a planning process that articulates the needs of an aging population on Martha’s Vineyard, and the challenges they face. HAMV has established an approach to planning which brings together key stakeholders who share a common agenda. Essential to this process is a commitment to maximize coordination and collaboration.

The strategic plan — making Martha’s Vineyard an aging-friendly Island — is the product of many participants who pooled their expertise and talents in issue-focused work groups. Drawing on the expertise of national organizations, the strategy identifies five areas for community action. These include health and mental health, housing and housing supports, transportation, community engagement, and caregiver support. The plan addresses the key issues that underlie each area, and makes action-oriented recommendations to advance healthy aging. We list some examples of recommendations for each area below: 

  • Health and mental health: Engage primary healthcare providers, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and other elder-serving organizations to increase the number of professionals with specific training in geriatrics. Use the experiences of other rural communities as models for geriatrician training.
  • Housing: Assure a range of appropriate housing options for the changing needs of people as they age. Reduce isolation and loneliness among elders by expanding opportunities for intergenerational housing, volunteerism, and community engagement. 
  • Transportation: Recognize the special needs of certain riders, and provide appropriate means of transportation to foster independence. Ensure that transportation services incorporate driver training on how to support elders with dementia, physical handicaps, or cognitive difficulties.
  • Caregiver support: Improve the identification of symptoms of caregiver stress, burnout, and emotional exhaustion by health professionals, families, and caregivers themselves. Expand education to prevent caregiver stress. Design systems to support stressed caregivers and prevent elder neglect and abuse. 
  • Community engagement: Encourage nonprofit and public organizations to include age and gender diversity in the composition of their governing and advisory bodies. Engage the talents and experiences of older residents.

In addition to presenting recommendations for action, the strategic plan also discusses the many specific challenges that living in an island community pose for healthy aging. Among these challenges are the high cost of living on the Island, the growing need for in-home care, a shortage of homecare workers, and an increase in the number of persons with dementia who require special care, which is difficult to find in a rural setting.

The challenges are many, and much needs to be done. Barriers to collaboration must be removed. Existing resources need to be shared, and new resources found. Where existing approaches fall short, new ideas need to be explored. Innovations that improve life must be embraced. Making Martha’s Vineyard an aging-friendly Island represents a forward-thinking step to bring collective action to make healthy aging on Martha’s Vineyard a reality. Most important, building the reality of a healthy aging community demands not only a vision of health but a very high level of community commitment. In the planning process, we have seen the talent and commitment of our neighbors and the expertise of our organizations. Now is the time to use that talent and commitment to make our community a great place in which one can live healthily today and gracefully grow older tomorrow.

For more information on the work of Healthy Aging M.V., consult the website hamv.org.

This essay is the seventh and last in a series written by Leon L. Haley 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.