How do you age with grace? This is the question facing one in three Martha’s Vineyard full-time residents, who are more than 65 years of age. As most of us know, age is a funny thing. Depending on one’s health and a myriad of life circumstances — from job fulfillment and retirement finances to the health and richness of the relationships one has — one can be 80 and feel young or 60 and feel old. That said, no matter how one feels, one thing is true: As we age, at some point we will need help. It might be small. A railing to get down the stairs might suddenly be a necessary home feature. It might be big. Driving might no longer be possible, or a partner might have died sooner than expected, and one is stuck with a big house and bigger expenses. No matter what, Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard (HAMV) works to fill the gaps and offer support services to ensure that aging Islanders can live the healthiest, most enriched life possible.
“There is an upside to the aging experience,” HAMV executive director Cindy Trish says. “We have time. We have expertise.” She references the 2020 HAMV survey responses of more than 2,500 older adults on the Island, which drew a picture of their educational history, current needs, daily lives, and financial status, and revealed that 52 percent of older adults are volunteers. “We did the calculations, and that is a contribution of about $30 million a year for the Island. We need these people here. The Island would come to a standstill without them. They play instrumental roles in our government, as board members, they drive for Meals on Wheels, they tutor, they mentor, they are our neighbors, and they are caretakers. Many grandparents are caring for their grandchildren because they are short on childcare.”
Trish herself is a great example of this. She is 70. About three years ago, after a successful career in Palo Alto, Boston, and London, doing strategic consulting and market research for technology firms, she shifted gears. “I wanted to do something more mission-oriented that would benefit the community,” Trish said. “I saw an ad in the paper for a job with Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard. I had never heard of it, but as someone with parents who died young, I wanted to learn for myself about aging. And here I am, trying to figure out all the components that will optimize the aging process.”
For those who don’t know, Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard was founded by Paddy Moore in 2013. Moore has made significant contributions to our community. She has volunteered as a member of the Dukes County Health Council; initiated the Rural Scholar’s survey of Island needs, which partners with the University of Massachusetts; has been involved in Sacred Ground, which seeks to honor indigenous members of the Island community; developed the Center for Living; and, recently, has championed the Navigator Homes project, which was inspired by the Green House Project model, and will provide a place for older Islanders who need living and nursing support to live without having to leave the Island. “Navigator Homes is HAMV’s first heavy lift,” Moore says. “We are committed to housing at least 50 percent of our residents on Medicare. Yes, we will have to have private-pay residents, but we have to subsidize some of the operating costs.”
HAMV grew out of Moore’s work as a national mediator and facilitator. “In 2006, the National Institutes of Health had done a study that found that by 2011, 10,000 Americans would turn 65 every day. They didn’t want this to get shelved, so they tasked a team of us to set up an organization that would focus on the coming shortage of a workforce that could support the care of older people. In 2007, the ElderCare Workforce Alliance was born. And it still exists today. It was a transformative experience for me.” At that time, Moore also noticed that her husband Ben was showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. She got a grant to start an effort to support older care on the state level. Ben died in 2018. “Sixty-three people came to the first Island HAMV meeting in 2013, and 57 people signed up to do work groups,” Moore remembers. Initially, it was a small group of concerned citizens who saw an increased need for services for the growing older population: “The M.V. Hospital has been a supporter from the beginning. And the Martha’s Vineyard Commission has been terrific in terms of planning. Our data has been important and useful to the towns.”
Today, HAMV serves about 7,500 adults on the Island. All six Island towns help support HAMV, and Community Services serves as its fiscal agent so that HAMV can also receive grants and private donations. Moore explains that it is not just the fiscal support from the towns, but the fact that they are an integral part of the HAMV community and work with them on strategy and planning.
To meet the needs of so many people, “we build bridges with a broad and diverse array of Island stakeholders,” Trish says.
Another top-line finding in the HAMV 2020 Survey was that older adults want to age in place for as long as possible. HAMV has responded to this in a myriad of ways. “In some cases, it is just about education and raising awareness,” Trish says. pointing to HAMV’s Falls Prevention program. The HAMV website, hamv.org, is a great resource on falling — from the myths of why people fall to home hacks for better safety. HAMV has also sponsored fall prevention talks at the Councils on Aging and at the YMCA. “We teach people how to use a cane. How to get up when you fall,” Trish says. The group also offers an eight-week course on the same subject at Howe’s House called “A Matter of Balance,” which is “an evidence-based interactive program to educate, connect, and support our older adults who have experienced a fall or who are in fear of falling after having fallen.” Hundreds have benefited from attending classes and receiving educational materials.
HAMV is also about intervention and support. To prevent falls, HAMV offers a Home Safety Modification Program. This initiative serves to facilitate things like installing grab bars in bathrooms, better lighting, or railings near stairs. The modification program is for homeowners 65 or older or those with disabilities, working with Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association and local contractors; it is in its third full year. HAMV serves as the program manager. It assesses the home’s safety issues, matches each participant with a contractor to conduct the renovations, and then provides a post-renovation assessment of the project. More than 70 people have participated in this project, and more than 80 percent of the participants qualified to have 100 percent of the costs covered. HAMV obtained grant funding in excess of $100,000 from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank Charitable Foundation, and private donations to cover these costs.
Another challenge that older adults face is the loss of their driver’s license. “Until you can’t drive, you just don’t get how challenging it is,” Trish says. How do you get your groceries? See your doctors, or visit with friends? To meet this need, HAMV has created the Older Adults Transportation Coalition, which consists of 15 agencies including the VTA and Steamship Authority. It runs GoGoGrandparents, which is an on-demand ride program, a Council On Aging shopping shuttle for on-Island transportation, and even a shuttle with escorts for Islanders who are having cataract surgery off-Island. They also utilize the Island’s existing assets, such as VTA vans. In the first year, more than 2,600 rides were provided to more than 200 individuals. HAMV raised more than $100,000 in grants to support this effort.
Beyond addressing the needs of individuals, HAMV is also looking at systems and how Island institutions are supporting our aging adults, and how aging adults can support the Island. Another upside that Trish is trying to optimize is housing. There are many older adults here with big houses and extra space who might also want or need some rental income or company. So HAMV is currently piloting a home sharing program to pair aging adults who live alone (the host) with an employed Islander (the guest) who needs housing. Modeled after nationwide programs, HAMV is in the early stages of getting this program off the ground. The way it works is an older adult homeowner who is interested in renting a room and sharing their home can reach out to HAMV to participate. The home and partners are carefully vetted, with the help of M.V. Mediation to provide housing facilitation expertise, to ensure a quality match between participants. “It takes several months to make this work. We’re only on our fourth match, but it is an incredible way to share assets and solve an Island problem,” Trish says.
“HAMV is about planting seeds. Most trees are slow-growing. We want HAMV to be the embodiment of planning for a community over time. What it can be. What older adults need is what everyone else needs too,” Moore says.
“Older adults don’t need second-class solutions,” Trish adds. “Anyone who wants to join us and help just needs to raise their hand and jump in. It’s a lot of work. But it’s also really rewarding.”