Survey, Study Aims To Make Cape 'Age-friendly' Region

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Aging

The Chatham Senior Center.  FILE PHOTO

Imagine this scenario: An elderly widow with chronic health problems, whose only child lives in Wisconsin, retires to a house at the end of a 200-yard lane in a rural area of the Outer Cape.

Does this sound like an ideal scenario if that woman needs emergency services? If she can no longer drive, how will she obtain groceries, or go to a medical appointment, church or a movie?

The point is, if you are going to live in a remote and hard-to-reach spot in your senior years, you need to do some planning so that you can remain safe and well-cared for. Many off-Cape children of seniors do not believe their parents are as safe as they could be. An increasing number of calls are coming to police departments across Cape Cod requesting that someone check on mom or dad, says Vaira Harik, deputy director/senior project manager at the Barnstable County Department of Human Services.

Harik’s department has released the Barnstable County Healthy Aging Project Community Survey. It asks residents of all 15 Cape Cod towns about the respondents’ living conditions, attitudes and quality of life. The results of the survey will assist the Cape’s planners in coordinating services to best fit the needs of the community.

The survey is being paid for as a part of a two-year, $121,520 grant from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation to the Cape Cod Foundation. The grant will end on June 30, 2020. The first portion of the grant is the survey; the second part is the creation of a regional action plan. In part three, all 15 communities will be assessed. Finally, the region will join the AARP’s network of “age-friendly communities” as an “Age-Friendly Region.”

“It’s particularly important because our population is disproportionately older and getting older faster than in other places,” Harik says.

Statewide, the median age of residents is 39.4 years. Orleans, in contrast, has the oldest population in the state, with a median age of 60.4. Chatham is a close second, with a median age of 59.7 while Harwich is a slightly younger town with a median age of 52.6.

The survey, which can be completed online or on paper, takes about 15 minutes. With two weeks to go before the deadline of Feb. 28, already about 700 people have filled out the survey, Harik says. Although the survey is billed for people ages 50 and over, Harik encourages people of all ages to respond. She is particularly interested in the lives of the caregivers in “the sandwich generation.” Responses are anonymous unless a respondent voluntarily offers an email address.

After asking basic questions about gender, age, race and education level, the survey asks how long you have lived on the Cape, who you live with, and what type of housing you have. Do you intend to live there as you age? Are modifications necessary for the property such as grab bars, railings or a wheelchair ramp? Can you afford the changes?

Other questions ask about finances, caregiving situations, and the presence of dementia in anyone in the household.

The survey is interested in your sociability, too. How often do you have contact with relatives, friends, neighbors? Do you ever feel lonely, isolated, or left out?

How is your health? Do you have mobility problems? Have you fallen? Does a physical disability or chronic disease keep you from fully participating in life? What social services do you use? And finally, what is your general satisfaction with life?

In 2016, the Chatham Council on Aging conducted a needs-assessment survey and produced a report called “The Future of Aging in the Town of Chatham.”

“By working with the county we can start where our needs assessment left off and can move forward,” says Mandy Speakman, COA director. Speakman cites housing and transportation issues as the biggest concerns for the aging population in Chatham.

The questions on the survey are based on an initiative of the World Health Organization, adopted by the AARP, that lists eight “domains,” or qualities, that a community “can address to better adapt their structures and services to the needs of older people.” They are “the built environment, transport, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication, and community support and health services.”

The AARP encourages communities to look at these domains by creating “age-friendly communities.” In 2018 Massachusetts became the second state in the nation to become an age-friendly state. Within the state, 36 cities and towns including Boston are members of the AARP Network of Friendly States and Communities. (None of the Cape’s 15 towns are in the group at this time.)

When the work of the grant is complete, “the community can decide if it would like to pursue Age/Dementia Friendly status,” Speakman says. She hopes that Chatham can be a healthy community for all ages.

“The ultimate goal,” added Harwich COA Director Emily Mitchell, “is to make Cape Cod a place with systems of care, housing, and education that is affordable and supportive of people of all ages.”

The survey can be filled out online through Feb. 28 by clicking here. Paper copies are available through all Council on Aging offices.