By Nyan Lynn
After enjoying retirement for six months, David Ellison is now thinking to return to the challenging world of work. Though he has a small amount of pension and Social Security benefits, he said he feels that he still needs to make some more money.
But the 71-year-old man also wants to get a job so he can engage with people. “It’s really important to be connected somehow and feel that you’re still contributing,” Ellison said inside the Boston Public Library where he often reads books and newspapers.
But the soft-spoken, spectacled man with gray hair is anxious that he would be judged by his age and rejected by employers. He also has another concern. He does not know how to use a computer properly, though he has one at home. Like many people around his age, digital devices are intimidating for him.
“I don’t think I have marketable skills,” Ellison said with a heavy sigh.
Ellison is one of thousands of older adults in Boston neighborhoods who are struggling to have a happy, healthy, and peaceful life. Depending on their social, economic and educational backgrounds, older adults face different kinds of challenges on their road to carefree, successful aging life.
Boston – the largest city in New England – may not be well-prepared yet for the rapidly increasing number of older adults due to decreasing fertility rates and increasing life expectancy.
In 2010, the number of older adults in Boston aged 60 and above was about 88,000 or around 14 percent of the city’s population. By 2030, the number of older adults in Boston would go up to around 20 percent or 130,000 people, according to Aging in Boston, a research report by the city’s Commission on Affairs of the Elderly and the University of Massachusetts Boston.
The report also said that the population of baby boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964, are living longer than previous cohorts, creating a larger population of seniors.
Despite the fact that Boston is a walkable city with green space, cultural, religious, and educational opportunities, the city still has challenges for older adults, said Andrea Burns, director of the City’s Age-Friendly Boston which works with public agencies and other groups to create an age-friendly city.
One issue facing older adults is income insecurity, Burns said.
“The majority of people in this age group (60+) are living on far less than they need to survive and thrive in the city,” she said. “Mainly, that’s because of the cost of living and the cost of housing.”
Due to high living costs, many older adults complain that they don’t have the money to cover food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and health care.
Beverley Reid, 77, is one of them. She said she is most concerned about health care because she is not eligible for MassHealth, a public health insurance program for those who have medium, low and no income. Income level is not the only criteria used for MassHealth eligibility but it is a crucial one.
Reid said she’s always worried, thinking how much it’d cost for health care if she gets sick. “That is my concern because it (health care cost) can deplete your income and everything that is on welfare,” she said. “Life can be depleted.”
Reid said she lives on less than $1,000 a month that she gets from Social Security.
A report on Insecurity in the States 2016 published by UMass Boston said that Massachusetts has the second highest financial insecurity for single seniors after Mississippi across the U.S. This report noted 61 percent of single older adults face financial insecurity in Massachusetts.
In an effort to promote healthy and active quality life for the rising aging population, Boston joined the World Health Organization (WHO) global network of age-friendly communities three years ago.
The world health body recommended member cities address eight major needs of older people, including housing, transportation, outdoor space and building, community support and health services, communication and information, civic participation and employment, respect and social inclusion, and social participation.
In the Age-Friendly Boston Action Plan 2017, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said, “We are dedicated to making Boston the best city in the world for older adults.”But for now, Boston is not even included among the top three best cities for older people.
Though Boston is ranked as the 4th best city in the U.S. for aging adults in 2012, the city’s ranking dropped down to 9th this year, said the Best Cities for Successful Aging 2017 Report.
In order to find out the major needs of older adults, Boston’s Commission on the Affairs of the Elderly and the Gerontology Institute of UMass Boston jointly conducted needs assessments and laid out what kinds of actions must be taken.
Among the different needs, housing is the biggest concern for older adults, said Jan E. Mutchler, professor of gerontology at UMass Boston. She is also director of Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging within the university’s Gerontology Institute.
“In our project, we heard the most about housing,” said Mutchler, “People are struggling to pay for the housing they already have. Sometimes they live in housing that they really are not prepared to keep up.”
Organizations that are working on the issue of the aging population also said that housing is a big issue for older adults. They mostly blame higher demand and lower supply.
Like other places across the U.S., housing is viewed more as an investment in Boston as opposed to a place to live, said Eileen O’Brien, director of Elders Living at Home Program.
The increasing housing prices impose more stress and challenges for older adults who live on a fixed income such as pension or Social Security benefits, O’Brien said.
“There are more people competing for what are fewer affordable housing units. It’s something we see obviously people end up becoming homeless as a result of that,” she said.
O’Brien also said that Boston is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. to live in terms of rents and affordability. An article from Investopedia, one of the world’s leading sources of financial content, said that Boston is the 4th most expensive city in the U.S. after New York, San Francisco, and Honolulu.
Because of such high housing costs, many older adults such as Ellison are constantly worrying about their living and housing issues.
Currently, he rents an apartment in East Boston. He does not want to live in the rented apartment forever. But housing prices are way beyond what he can afford, Ellison said.
Aging in Boston reported 48 percent of Boston residents age 60 and above are living in a rented home, and 28 percent live in a mortgaged home. Only 24 percent of them are fortunate to live in completely paid-for homes.
Financial insecurity and constant anxiety about housing impact the health of older adults, said experts.
“Any community that has a lot of lower-income residents or lower-educated residents is going to have a higher rate of some conditions such as hypertension, diabetes,” said Mutchler of UMass Boston.
The Massachusetts Healthy Aging Data Report also states that communities with less educated and poorer older residents seem to have worse health conditions.
The report also said that black and Hispanic older adults have poorer health, more unhealthy days, less physical activity and higher rates of disability, obesity, and failure to see the doctors.
In the whole state, on average, two of every three aging adults have four or more chronic conditions, the report said.
Another significant issue of older adults relates to disabling conditions.
“Those disabilities often come from health conditions,” said Mutchler. “But if you have the right environment, even someone who has a health condition that might make it difficult for them to get around can still do the things that they want to do.”
Transportation is also a big issue for older adults, said experts. Though Boston has one of the best public transportation systems in the country, it is still a challenge for older adults, especially for those who have disabilities because of aging.
“It’s very difficult for people to get from here to there particularly when they have mobility problems,” said Kathy Burnes, division director of Services for Older Adults at Jewish Family & Children’s Service.
Older adults complain that they face problems going to the nearby train stations or bus stations especially during the winter when the streets are slippery with snow and icy water. They also note that public restrooms are hard to find even in the downtown area.
After housing and transportation, experts and older adults indicate getting needed information is a top concern.
“There are a lot of resources for elderly people, but people don’t know about them,” said Alice Fisher, who was involved in the city’s age-friendly project, and is an active member of Boston’s LGBT aging community.
“So, a common problem they all have is communication,” Fisher said.
Burns of Age-Friendly Boston agreed with Fisher. “We want the public to know more things that would benefit them,” Burns said, adding that Age-Friendly Boston is looking at what would be the best way to get information out to those who need it.
“We just have to go through the first step of looking at and examining how we’re getting to people and what they need to hear more,” she said.
While other services are important, experts explain that social connection is key to creating a happy life for older adults.
“Being socially connected is as important as any medication, as any exercise program, as any nutritious program,” said Susan McWhinney-Morse, co-founder of Beacon Hill Village, which provides programs and services to its members living in their own homes and neighborhoods.
“Isolation is the enemy of aging,” she maintained.
Experts said that those who live alone have the greater risk of experiencing social isolation and associated negative health problems.
Aging in Boston found more than one-third of older people aged 60 and above lives alone. Among older adults aged 80 and above, living alone is as high as nearly 50 percent.
“A lot of people focus on independence, but we really need to be interdependent,” said Burnes of Jewish Family & Children’s Service.
“A lot of what we need to do is for people who live alone to make sure that they’re getting the services they need.”
In order to fight isolation and have a social connection with young people, some older adults are looking for part-time jobs. But they said the world favors younger people than older people, which makes it harder for older adults to find a job.
On the other hand, younger people feel that older people are staying in the job for so long.
Pointing out the rising longevity in the U.S. and across the world, McWhinney-Morse asked why people aged 65 who may be at the top of their game, informed, intelligent and full of energy, and creativity should suddenly quit.
“Because they’re 65 makes no sense, makes no sense at all,” the co-founder of Beacon Hill Village argued.
For some older adults like Suleiman Benmassoud, employment seems to be the most important need. The 63-year-old man said he never feels isolated, and always tries to enjoy the life.
“I’m always positive. I always stay in the present,” said Benmassoud, who was originally from Libya. As he stays away from junk food and sugar and exercises often, he said he does not worry about his health. He is now working a part-time job in an IT business in the Back Bay.
Benmassoud is like many older adults in Boston in that he’s worried about financial insecurity. Though Benmassoud is close to retirement age, like many others in their 60s, he thinks he must work to support himself. And he wants the government to take the lead.
When asked what the government could do for older adults like him, Benmassoud paused a moment and said, “Share resources with us and create job opportunities for us.”