By the year 2020 one-quarter of the Vineyard will be over the age of 65.
By the year 2025 that number is expected to jump to 30 per cent, according to findings by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.
Putting into place the support systems and personnel needed to accommodate the graying Island population was the focus of research by the UMass Rural Scholars group, who presented their findings last Thursday night. The Rural Scholars are students at the UMass Medical School in Worcester. Grants from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and the Mass in Motion programs funded their two-week stay on the Vineyard. The group interviewed 33 Island organizations, from the sheriff’s office to the Vineyard Committee on Hunger, and developed a series of recommendations for strengthening elder infrastructures.
A different group of rural scholars studied the elderly Island population in 2011, focusing their research on problems faced by the current population, including social isolation, transportation difficulties and substance abuse.
The 2013 group, however, aimed their research at the future.
“We’re hoping that the recommendations we’ve presented today give you an idea of what we think the path forward is — an Island where it’s healthier and safer and more enjoyable to grow old,” said medical student Gosha Smas.
The group found that there was already a wealth of services in place for the elderly, including a dedicated group of volunteers. But they stressed that navigating the sea of services was challenging, particularly when dealing with bureaucracy at the local, state and federal levels. There was an immediate need for “pooling intellectual resources,” said student Arianne (Cuff) Baker.
For example, she said, the group found that “different councils on aging knew about different programs, and that knowledge wasn’t shared.”
To solve the resource pooling problem, the group recommended establishing a one-stop referral center to complement the established services and organizations. The center, which could be staffed by one person but that likely would grow over time, would provide one phone number and website that seniors could access — a real-life Google for elder services.
Two of the most pressing problems for seniors were inextricably linked — medical services and affordable housing. There is currently just one geriatrician on the Island, and few specialists in elder needs such as opthalmology, endocrinology and podiatry. Martha’s Vineyard Community Services works to fill gaps in mental health care, partially through a grant from the hospital to provide in-home counseling. That grant funding, however, will expire in two years.
Additionally, said student Ismael Rivera, “Dental care is a huge, huge gap.”
But increasing medical services means attracting new physicians to move to the Island, and that means providing housing. Seniors also face challenging housing situations, as the homes they lived in with large families shrink to an occupancy of one. Moving into an apartment or smaller home is not an easy option. There is currently a two-year waiting list for Island Elder Housing.
Staying at home presents the risk of social isolation, and the group also championed transit systems such as The Lift and the Blueberry Van, as well as the underutilized service Vineyard Village at Home, which relies on volunteers to provide transit needs. They also spoke highly of the Center For Living’s supportive day program, which gives seniors a place to socialize and stay mentally active, as well as giving caregivers a respite.
The group heard time and again, Ms. Smas said, that “the supportive day program is a lifesaver. That word really rang true for us.”
“There are a lot of people on the Island who are eager to make these solutions happen,” she said.
“One of the things that was especially impressive . . . is the volunteer corps here,” Ms. Baker said. “There’s a real drive to be a part of it.”
A second group of Rural Scholars also emphasized the community-minded spirit of the Vineyard during a presentation researching healthy weight in Island children. Their research was sparked by the recently-cancelled statewide practice of measuring body mass index in schoolchildren, and sending letters home to parents reporting the BMI. The letters were intended to “start the conversation about healthy weight among children and their families,” said student Molly Cook. Last week, however, the Massachusetts Public Health Cancel voted to eliminate the letter practice, although schools will continue to measure BMI.
The students were hoping to identify patterns of obesity from the letters, but found distinctly different percentages from year to year. For example, students measured in the year 2011 showed obesity rates slightly higher than the Massachusetts average, but when the groups looked at the year 2012, which has not yet been made publicly available, the rates were “quite different,” said student Jeremy Malin. Students are measured in first, fourth, seventh and 10th grade, and each cohort “is just a different group of kids,” Mr. Malin said.
The group analyzed the various ways Island programs promote healthy lifestyles and nutritional education, and praised the Island Grown Schools initiative, as well as the school lunch programs at the elementary schools.
“We joked that there’s so much good that has already been done [on the Vineyard] that all the low lying fruit was already plucked,” Ms. Cook said. “States all across the nation could learn from Martha’s Vineyard, for sure.”
A meeting for community leaders to discuss the Rural Scholars project on aging will be held on Nov. 8 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Dreamland in Oak Bluffs. The meeting will be facilitated by Ann Booker of Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management. For information or to sign up, contact Peter Temple at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Rural Scholars presentation can be viewed online at mvdonors.org