How’s Howes House? 

Building committee presented findings from their focus study. 

A section of Howes House that is planned to be preserved. — Eunki Seonwoo

A survey of older residents showed they perceive Howes House as a West Tisbury resource rather than an up-Island resource, according to a presentation made by the Howes House building committee.

The committee presented its focus study findings during a Wednesday, Nov. 2, meeting. A copy of the presentation slides is available on the West Tisbury town website. 

The committee initially planned to conduct a survey to better understand the wants and needs of the people who use Howes House, which is home to the Up-Island Council on Aging. However, it was decided a focus study would ensure the voices of all demographic groups who use the space can be heard. In particular, the focus study solicited input from up-Island older adults. This information will be used for Howes House’s renovations, for which the committee chose the architectural firm K & K.

Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard executive director Cindy Trish, who led the focus study, presented the information. “The focus was on a physical gathering place for older adults and how we could increase its utility and value,” Trish said. 

Among the 59 participants of varying older ages, 64 percent were from West Tisbury, 28 percent were from Chilmark, and 8 percent were from Aquinnah. This showed that West Tisbury residents had higher representation in the survey, and could be an indication of why it’s perceived as a town resource. 65 percent of participants were women, compared to the 35 percent who were men, and 85 percent were year-round residents. The majority of participants were between the ages of 65 and 84, with 61 percent of total participants having used Howes House in the past two years. Fifty-nine percent of the participants were retired, and 27 percent worked part-time. 

“We were very pleased with the mix of the individuals we were able to bring to the focus groups, and, of course, their active participation in the focus groups,” Trish said. 

Key parts of the focus study were learning what people thought about Howes House and its surrounding landscape, alongside possible futures for the building. Trish listed some ways participants perceived Howes House. People saw Howes House as a place that provides older adult services, and as part of a campus, which includes the nearby Fields Gallery and Alley’s General Store. Additionally, Trish said people saw Howes House as a West Tisbury resource rather than an up-Island one, a perception that was brought up during a joint meeting among all three up-Island select boards

West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand later expressed how the perception “doesn’t really bear out in the facts,” pointing out usage among the towns was revealed to be relatively proportionate to their population. Attendee Beth Kramer said despite the numbers, more information, through presentations or other methods, needs to be sent out to Aquinnah and Chilmark, since even some select board members in those towns were unaware of this. 

Participants also saw positives and negatives regarding Howes House. The welcoming staff and the services provided were seen positively by participants, but a lack of knowledge about what is offered, limits from operational hours, and a perception of who Howes House is for (e.g. West Tisbury residents, very old or infirm) brings challenges, according to participants’ answers. “Consistently hearing ‘It’s not for me’” from participants echoed what Trish heard during Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard’s 2020 survey on older adults. 

“We had one absolutely amazing gentleman who came to one of the sessions who mentioned he doesn’t come to the Council on Aging because he wasn’t old enough. He happened to be 89,” Trish said, adding that the man thought the services were appropriate for people 90 years of age or older. 

The focus study also collected a wish list of what participants would like to see at Howes House, such as cooking classes and hybrid Zoom programs. A presentation slide states that Island older adults want four things in a physical location: a place to connect with friends old and new, learn and experience new things, give their knowledge to benefit the community, and to receive access to information and resources for food and services. These wants can be supplied at Howes House. Trish also went through what the building should have after the renovations during the presentation, such as energy efficiency, increased accessibility by complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and “inclusivity across [the] older adult spectrum,” among others. Trish also invited people to “think big” on what can be offered at Howes House. 

Attendee Susan Silk pointed out that the building should have some nights of the week or month where it is open at night, to be more accessible for people. Trish agreed with this sentiment. Additionally, the agencies who participated in the focus study hoped Howes House could be a facility used by people of all ages. 

“There’s some … sense of urgency in the conversations we had with older adults,” Trish said. “There’s more of us, we’re going to be skewing older in the next 10 years, and we know that our older adults desire to stay on the Island, to age in place, and there’s a critical role for our Council on Aaging to support the ability to do so.” 

The direction of Howes House’s renovation is in line with the presentation information, according to committee member Skipper Manter. “We’ll try to encompass as much of these things you described in the renovations and redoing of the existing Howes House,” Manter said. However, he pointed out that there are some limitations on what is allowed for the building. 

When Silk asked what the next steps of the committee are, Manter said there are “many next steps,” but the more immediate one would be to share the presentation with K & K and the Howes House owner’s project manager, ACG.