The state of the Island’s older population

Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard compiled data that can inform Island decisions. 

Tisbury Council on Aging on Pine Tree Road. — Eunki Seonwoo

A third of the residents on Martha’s Vineyard are 65 years or older, higher than the national average of one in five, and that population is only going to grow, according to a survey by Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard. 

Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard’s (HAMV) 2020 “State-of-the-Island Older Adult Overview” survey results are now available for the public on its website. According to HAMV’s website, the study was done with help from Boston University’s Metrobridge program, which connects the school’s faculty and students to local partners and projects. 

The last time HAMV did a survey on older people on Martha’s Vineyard was in 2015. “There is a lot of value in keeping that data as current as you can, and so much has changed over the last five years,” HAMV executive director Cindy Trish said. “It was probably overdue.” 

Trish said the latest field survey was conducted from October 2020 to January 2021. A total of 2,418 participants, who were 60 years or older, filled out a printed survey and handed it in to HAMV, or completed one online. The six towns had an average response rate of 32.5 percent. Edgartown had the most participants at 599 respondents, while Aquinnah had the lowest survey response number, at 70 people. In turn, the survey portrays an underrepresented number of respondents, but still provides much-needed information. 

The survey accomplished two primary purposes: showing data relating to older people on the Island such as demographics, finances, needs, etc. It also provided recommendations local governments and relevant organizations can take on various types of care, better transportation, help with chores, etc. The Island towns’ ratio of the adult population in the 65-years-and-older demographic is anticipated to grow annually through 2035, with the largest expected increase from 10 percent to 50 percent of the total population in Aquinnah, and the smallest increase from 25 percent to 30 percent in Oak Bluffs. 

“The fact that at least one in three of our full-time residents are older … means that this group is an incredibly fast-growing membership in the community, and I think the survey really showcased the contributions of our older adults,” Trish said, indicating the way older adults contribute to the Island community through volunteering on the Island, which amounts to the equivalent of more than 500 full-time employees. 

Trish said each town was made aware of the data. The select boards of Aquinnah and Oak Bluffs were presented with their towns’ information. The other towns have the data, and some are considering whether to have a presentation about it. According to Trish, it is important to have the information “at your fingertips” for better understanding and strategizing. 

“We’ve been sharing the data across the Island as soon as it was done in late spring,” Trish said, although the time it took to complete the town-level research delayed the survey’s availability on the HAMV website. She wanted to make sure the towns had the data first. 

Trish also shared the information with various groups outside local government, both on-Island and off, such as Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and the University of Massachusetts Boston’s department of gerontology. “There are a lot of people who find this data helpful,” Trish said. 

Trish said while she was not at HAMV when the 2015 survey was published, she is aware of the impact it had. The data in the survey became a catalyst for a number of initiatives to support the Island’s older population, such as the Falls Prevention Coalition’s efforts and the eldercare facility planned for Edgartown

“Going forward, we’re really using the survey data as a significant input into the creation of our community plan,” Trish said. “In those reports, you can see the six areas [essential needs, transportation options, information sources, digital equity and inclusion, expanding engagement opportunities, safety and accessibility] at the end of the report, and all of them we’re focusing in on. That’s the community plan we’ll be submitting with much more detail to the World Health Organization to become recertified as an aging-friendly Island. Also, we’re going for dementia-friendly as well. This will be the community plan we hope to partner with the local towns, with service agencies across the Island, and really address those six specific needs.” 

Several factors contribute to making age- and dementia-friendly communities, such as housing and outdoor spaces, among others, according to the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative. Massachusetts is a leading state for age-friendly communities, with 76 already established, including Martha’s Vineyard, and over 60 developing. 

“We’re in such a unique situation, physically separated from other geographies and having to kind of make it work here or ask people to move off-Island, which is not what 97 percent of our older adults want. They want to age in their homes and stay on the Island,” Trish said. Older adults, including herself, “really treasure” living on the Island. “We appreciate the natural assets. We feel respected by others in our community. And, people are here because they want to be here. But the reality is we all, through our aging process, need different levels of support and service to live the best lives that we can.”

For those interested in taking a closer look at HAMV’s survey results, visit the website at PDF files of the overall survey and a breakdown of each town’s results are available there.