Our View: Happy 50th, Councils On Aging

by The Cape Cod Chronicle

Many of our local councils on aging are celebrating 50th anniversaries this year. The state legislature originally passed Chapter 40 Section 8B of Massachusetts General Laws in 1972 allowing towns to establish local councils on aging “for the purpose of coordinating or carrying out programs designed to meet the problems of the aging in coordination with programs of the department of elder affairs.”

Cape towns swiftly established COAs, a prescient move considering that the peninsula would soon become a Mecca for retirees, leading communities here to have the highest average population age in the state (a distinction swapped every few years by Chatham and Orleans). This burgeoning of the senior population came at a time when the traditional ways that older Americans were treated were changing. Families were no longer multi-generational and the segregation of seniors into their own communities was just beginning. COAs were positioned to help buffer these societal changes by offering programs that kept seniors connected to their communities and provided services unique to the age group.

As the population has aged, COAs and the programs they offer have grown through the decades. They not only provide a venue for seniors to socialize, take enrichment and exercise classes, but they have also become a touchpoint for those trying to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of Medicare and other government programs as well as coordinating such important efforts as Meals on Wheels and medical transportation services. To some, the COA is a place to play cards and have lunch; to others it’s a lifeline that’s saved them from loneliness or the scum who prey on elders with scams.

The 50th anniversary celebrations going on over the next few months are opportunities to consider the benefits of councils on aging and contemplate their future. Chatham has been trying to reach consensus on a future facility — rebranded recently as the center for active living in place of the senior center — for its COA for several years now, and Brewster, too, is looking forward to having more modern quarters someday. These and other changes will reshape the future of local COAs. This past week both held celebrations to commemorate the agencies and remind the community of their role. Last month, the Healey-Driscoll administration filed legislation to rename the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, which like the COAs was established a half century ago, to the Executive Office of Aging and Independence. This better reflects the values of older residents of the state, according to the governor’s office, and is part of the administration’s effort to ensure seniors can access the information, services and support that they need.

While this is a nice feel-good move, the state could do more to help local COAs with the facility issues we’ve seen locally, rather than leaving local towns to shoulder the burden. That would be a better way for the governor to honor the state’s 350 COAs, all of which do necessary and important work.