The pandemic affected senior citizens sooner and more harshly than most other people, and now that the threat of COVID-19 is significantly diminished — “on the run,” as Gov. Charlie Baker says — it’s a good time to take stock of how we support our aging and elderly population.
Never before were services for seniors more critical than during the past 15 months — whether that meant providing counseling or delivering meals — even as health measures to prevent spread of COVID-19 closed one of the most trusted resources for that group, the local senior center.
Agencies found ways to adapt, working together to connect with and help seniors isolated during that time. Today, advocates for seniors stress the need to both preserve those strategies and keep their partnerships strong.
The pandemic also revealed areas of serious need, as noted in a report released last week by the Baker administration. For example, there’s still much work to be done to ensure that seniors are not isolated and have reliable access to broadband internet, and to address their emotional and behavioral health needs, as well as those of their families and caregivers.
The report, titled “ReiMAgine Aging,” marks Massachusetts’ progress toward becoming “age- and dementia-friendly.” It’s one of seven states AARP recognizes as working toward that goal.
Within Massachusetts, 134 communities have joined the organization’s “age-friendly network” as well — including Gloucester, Rockport, Essex, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Peabody, Salem, Swampscott, Wenham and Lawrence in our region. (In New Hampshire, Londonderry is also part of the network.) That designation does not necessarily reflect a community that is more or less livable for seniors — some have a lot of work to do — but it notes those actively pursuing ways to make the lives of seniors better.
“The importance of the age- and dementia-friendly movement is to create communities that encourage mental and physical support as we age,” Martha Valez, director of human services for Lawrence, is quoted as saying in the state's progress report. “A community that advocates unity among stakeholders can manifest a better outcome no matter the predicament the community is facing.”
Take the most recent public health emergency as an example. The pandemic was particularly harsh on the state’s seniors, directly and indirectly. As State House News Service noted in its coverage of the state’s progress report, the average age of the 17,903 people in Massachusetts who’ve died from COVID-19 is 70.
And as Baker noted in his introduction to the report, seniors who weren’t stricken with COVID-19 faced “economic calamity, isolation, anxiety and fear.” That’s not to mention other longstanding problems, such as racial inequality, that for many impair access to services.
There was a positive side, however. “In the midst of this public health emergency, we witnessed the resilience of communities, including older adults, family caregivers and the professionals who serve them. If there is a silver lining in all this, it’s how organizations and individuals from every corner of Massachusetts stepped up to confront the pandemic and care for each other," Baker wrote in the report's introduction.
Many of those agencies looked to each other, forming partnerships and programs to reach isolated seniors. Local leaders and agencies serving seniors, Baker noted, “served as a foundation for rapid coordination to meet the need of older residents.”
As we turn from COVID-19, it’s time to think seriously about how we address the needs of our aging population over the long term. That means pursuing policies and programs at the state and local level that address issues highlighted by the report — in the areas of emotional health, connectivity and racial inequality.
In the meantime, every community in Massachusetts — indeed every state in the country — should create a plan to improve services offered to its senior population. All should be members of AARP's network.
We will surely face another public emergency that tests our resources and collective spirit, just as COVID-19 did. When that day comes, the strong bonds among caregivers, service agencies and local officials will help protect the vulnerable among us.