EASTHAM — Nearly half of Eastham’s residents are at least 60 years old, and a recent study shows the trend toward an expanding older population is expected to continue because 65 percent of those in town are already over 50.
Over the last year, researchers at UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute have been gathering information about what these demographics mean to those who are aging here and those who care for them. The research consisted of a survey of residents age 50 and older focused on how they might be better served and interviews with leaders of organizations that work with elders.
Institute Director Caitlin Coyle prepared a report on the results with her colleague Beth Rouleau, and Coyle brought their findings to the select board at its April 3 meeting.
The survey clearly touched a nerve. Coyle said her team worked with responses from 1,563 people representing a 33-percent response rate — which she said was not only a statistically sound result but also one of the highest rates of response the Institute’s Center for Social and Demographic Research has ever seen.
“What this tells us is there are people coming to Eastham to age, and people wanting to stay in Eastham as they age,” Coyle told the select board. “But there are some significant concerns that people have about being able to do that successfully.”
Coyle promised a deeper dive into the 100-page final report during a summer forum when seasonal residents are in town.
The survey included open-ended questions, Coyle said, which means respondents were free to identify issues that might not have been listed among a set of multiple-choice answers.
Topping the list of concerns was the rising cost of living here. That worry was followed by the inability to access transportation to local amenities — meaning just being able to get around town, Coyle said. Access to medical care was another big issue.
“One in five respondents talked about concerns related to having access to medical care,” Coyle said. Related to that challenge, people reported having to spend four to six hours getting to and from doctors’ appointments. They also reported difficulty securing at-home support such as visiting nurses.
Two other frequently cited concerns were related to their ability to keep up their homes as they age and to maintain independence in their own homes.
The experience of aging here is often intergenerational: many respondents said they have provided care or assistance to someone who is disabled or frail over the last year. Residents in their 50s reporting doing the largest amount of caregiving, Coyle said, and they said it was challenging for them to meet their daily responsibilities while also providing that care.
In most cases, the caregiving is related to frailty and mobility limitations. But in 23 percent of the responses, the reason is dementia.
Joan Lockhart, who chairs the Eastham Council on Aging’s board of directors, said in an interview after the report was presented that she was struck by the “tremendous demand and the escalation of services people need, such as arranging for a home health aide, or enrolling in federal programs.”
She was also surprised to learn that 10 percent of respondents said they had experienced food insecurity in the last year.
“I work at the Eastham food pantry, and I know we don’t see 10 percent of our seniors,” Lockhart said, “So, we have to figure out how to get the word out.”
The survey also focused on the town’s senior center. Those who regularly use the center tend to be over 80 years old, the researchers found. The reasons people gave for not using it ranged from not feeling old enough, to having no time or already having an adequate social circle, to a lack of interest in the programs being offered.
The condition of the current senior center was named, too, and Coyle said survey respondents were in favor of relocating the Council on Aging to a new community center if the tax and traffic effects can be minimized. Lockhart said she was struck by one finding on this subject: seniors have “a clear preference for a community center with an integrated senior center rather than a standalone one.”
High on the respondents’ list of hopes for a better kind of center were indoor fitness opportunities like strength training, yoga, and Zumba, as well as educational programming such as cooking classes, foreign language courses, and technology training. Suggestions ranged widely, and included biking, hiking, painting, music, respite programs for caregivers, and adult day care. The takeaway that cuts across all of these, Lockhart noted, is older people’s desire for “lifelong learning.”
While Coyle focused on the survey in her presentation to the select board, the Institute’s report included its own recommendations for better serving the older population.
Their report advocated for a new space that would allow for lifelong learning courses and exercise programs as the town’s aging population expands and recommended hiring more social service staff, adding a licensed social worker, and expanding the council on aging’s volunteer program.
Whatever the center looks like, the institute suggests residents consider a new name for it. A better name should “reframe aging as a positive and active experience” to “empower residents to participate,” the report says.