The quiet struggle to age in place
Even under the best conditions, the search to find stable housing as we get older takes a toll
Linda Daniels is a lifelong resident of Winthrop, a classic oceanside community that seems like it has changed little over the last 50 years. But lately she’s wondered whether that timelessness has made it difficult for the town to adapt as it ages.
“Most people stay in town their whole lives,” she says. “It’s only recently – over the past 15 years or so, that we have built places for new people to live here.”
According to the 2018 Healthy Aging Data Report prepared by the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston, more than a million Massachusetts residents are age 65 and older, about 15% of the state’s population. The report says that’s 125,000 more than they reported just three years ago.
With her children grown up, Linda Daniels decided to downsize at the age of 70 and search for more affordable housing in town.
She knew what she wanted. Although she can still drive, she cites neighborhood walkability as a deciding factor in choosing where to live. Linda says she needed convenient access to a local grocery store, a laundromat, and a public bus or train stop so she could continue to be independent and grow older in her community. The options narrowed further when she factored in the need for an elevator and pet-friendly rules for her dog, Brady.
Her uncertainty and doubt mounted as more than a year passed without finding a new home. It took its toll.
Linda was not alone. The 2018 Healthy Aging Data Report reveals that 23% of Massachusetts communities, including Winthrop, experienced worsening health indicators for seniors in six or more categories over the last three years. The town ranks higher than the state average for anxiety and heart disease, as well as drug, alcohol and tobacco use among individuals 65 and older. Nearly 35% report depression.
Many of the communities that show a decline in senior health indicators are northeast and southeast of Boston, places where housing costs have markedly increased over the last few years but where most seniors are isolated if they don’t have a car. Although rent in Winthrop remains relatively affordable compared to the Boston region as a whole, housing costs in Massachusetts are significantly higher than the US average, while the average rent in Winthrop is $220 higher than in the rest of the state. Meanwhile, the median sales price of a single family home in Winthrop increased by nearly 15% in only one year, from 2016 to 2017.
“Whether it’s transportation, housing, or remaining active and socially engaged, people of all ages and abilities benefit from having choices and opportunities in their community,” said James Fuccione, senior director of the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative. “If a community recognizes and works to strengthen these choices, it goes a long way to support residents as they age.”
Linda loves Winthrop for its quiet small town sensibility and its proximity to Boston. “I have fond memories of beaches, parks, carnivals, and friends. Just everything about it,” she says. She sees Winthrop as having a strong sense of community where neighbors get along well.
When asked about what changes she would like to see in Winthrop, Linda says she would like to see more green spaces for walking, improved public transit, and opportunities for families to bike safely. She wants to provide more housing choices for those looking to downsize.
She would also like to see more diversity in her neighborhood. She fondly recalls her years working as an airline customer service agent in East Boston and the excitement she felt meeting new people from different national and ethnic backgrounds for the first time. “It was like a whole new world and I just loved it.”
“It is very hard to change things in Winthrop, but we try,” she says. Linda has a long-standing record of municipal activism. For over twenty years, she was an elected Town Meeting representative.
She is hopeful more community involvement will occur. “We have a lot of younger people taking the reins which I highly applaud,” she says.
After a year and a half of searching for housing, Linda found a new place to live. She knows she was lucky. She had the health and the resources to wait for the right home to become available, along with the income to afford it.
Others continue to struggle quietly. During a lunch discussion with more than 40 older residents at the Winthrop Senior Center last year, few participants brought up housing issues in front of the group. Instead the conversation focused on their struggle to get around and on the poor condition of sidewalks and intersections. But later, in one-on-one private conversations, organizers were swamped with individuals who wanted to talk about their housing challenges along with that of their children and grandchildren.
Sen. Joe Boncore talks to a packed room at the Winthrop Senior Center. Barbara Bishop from Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office was also in attendance, along with Winthrop Town Councilor Philip Boncore.”
Cities and towns can do more to create housing choices for seniors and families of all ages. Enabling homeowners to create accessory apartments in their homes makes multigenerational living possible, which reduces stress and social isolation. Zoning can be improved to encourage more apartments near a range of activities and amenities. These changes, together with rebuilding streets and sidewalks for pedestrians, bikes, and wheelchairs, can create the walkable, welcoming neighborhoods that support healthy aging.
For more information or assistance in promoting healthy aging strategies, please contact Dottie Fulginiti at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out our report on accessory dwelling units in Greater Boston (jointly issued with the Pioneer Institute).
The Town of Winthrop has been wrestling with these issues around its Center Business District revitalization.