CHATHAM — Judging by the numbers of seniors living here, one might assume that the Lower Cape is a pretty attractive place to grow old. But for many elders, the high cost of living, the lack of housing and transportation make it difficult to stay here and age with independence.
Chatham has now joined Orleans and other Cape towns in seeking a state designation as a regional “Age-friendly” community.
Demographically, Chatham and Orleans have the oldest average populations in Massachusetts, and they, and the 13 other towns on the Cape, have been invited to take part in Healthy Aging-Cape Cod. Under the auspices of the Barnstable County Department of Human Services, the program aims to help towns develop programs that better meet the needs of older residents.
Chatham Council on Aging Director Mandi Speakman said the movement has its roots in standards set by the World Health Organization, refined and adopted in the U.S. by the AARP. Those standards fall into eight broad categories: outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, and community and health services. Age-friendly communities have programs and infrastructure that makes it easier for older adults to age safely and comfortably.
In January, the Massachusetts Municipal Association and Gov. Charlie Baker decided to include age-friendly initiatives in the best practices of the state’s Commonwealth Community Compact program, which provides grant incentives and other benefits for municipalities that take part. In so doing, Massachusetts became one of just two states in the nation – New York being the other – to earn the AARP age-friendly designation.
As of March, every town on the Cape has signed up for the regional program, Speakman said. The process is moving quickly.
“It’s evolving,” she said. “There are a lot of moving parts.” Participating in the program won’t cost the town anything, though some of the recommendations will require investment by communities, she said.
Happening in parallel with the initiative is a related effort to earn the region “dementia-friendly” status. Many of the standards overlap, Speakman said. More than 120,000 Massachusetts residents are living with Alzheimer’s disease and related types of dementia, and the designation honors communities that adopt programs that help these people to live full, engaged lives. This effort is being lead by the Alzheimer’s Family Support Center, Speakman said.
Through its council on aging and other groups, Chatham has long been focused on the needs of its older citizens. In the early stages of discussing the need for a new senior center, the town worked with UMass Boston on a comprehensive needs assessment for its older residents.
“We didn’t know it, but what we were doing was laying a nice foundation” for the age-friendly application, Speakman said. Providing suitable public spaces for senior citizens is one of the eight goals of the program, she noted. But in other areas, like transportation, there’s plenty of work yet to be done.
There is an acute need for transportation for seniors going to and from their medical appointments on Cape Cod, she said. While the Chatham Senior Center operates two buses provided by the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, those buses are often used for errands in, and close to, Chatham. Doing so allows the buses to service the largest number of residents at a time, Speakman said. If the buses were used for medical trips, they would often be on the road for many hours with only one or two passengers. Many residents rely on private groups like FISH or Nauset Neighbors for medical transportation.
“That’s a huge gap that we’re not able to meet,” she said. While the regional transit authority has bus programs for medical trips, group transit is not always appropriate for seniors who are frail or who have cognitive problems and “can’t be bouncing around on a bus for hours,” Speakman said.
Another serious need – not limited to seniors – is the lack of affordable housing. Regionally, there is a need for new housing options that allow seniors to live independently with minimal expense.
“People are willing to downsize and move, but there are no options for them to downsize and move,” Speakman said. In Chatham, the council on aging was recently invited to take part in the regular revision of the town’s Housing Production Plan, and cooperative efforts like these could prove fruitful, she said.
With support from State Senator Julian Cyr, D–Truro, and the leadership of the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging, Healthy Aging-Cape Cod has applied for a grant from the Tufts Healthcare Foundation to advance the planning effort. If the grant application succeeds, the county will be able to devote a staff member who will help assess the most pressing needs in each of the Cape’s 15 towns, and will help them develop plans to meet those needs.
If the county doesn’t receive the grant, work on the initiative will be more difficult, but will likely still proceed, Speakman said. In Chatham, the council on aging and its partners will continue their efforts to make the community a safer, more livable place for seniors by chipping away at the obstacles.
“We’re still working toward all that,” she said.
Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com