BOSTON (SHNS) – The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an especially devastating toll on older residents of Massachusetts, but state officials and advocates said Thursday that the way communities and organizations responded to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable residents proved the strength of the age- and dementia-friendly movement in Massachusetts.
Elder Affairs Secretary Elizabeth Chen, AARP MA State Director Mike Festa and others gathered virtually Thursday to celebrate Older Americans Month and to release a two-year progress report titled “ReiMAgine Aging, the Age-Friendly Massachusetts Action Plan” to outline the state’s “work to become an age- and dementia-friendly state during the two global public health emergencies â€” the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing systemic racism.”
“Looking back on this past year, we have a lot to be proud of and have learned many lessons from communities and partners that will carry forward into our new normal,” Chen said. “Yet we also recognize that the pandemic shined a light on existing and systemic problems — inequities, racial injustice, the digital divide, ageism and behavioral health needs rose to the forefront, and will continue to shape our actions within the age- and dementia-friendly movement.”
Of the roughly 6.9 million residents of Massachusetts as of 2018, more than 1.58 million or 23 percent of them were 60 years old or older, according to the U.S. Administration for Community Living. That’s up from 1.27 million residents aged 60 or older as of 2010.
Nationwide, the trend is similar. ACL said older Americans “are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country” and that the nationwide population of people 65 or older is projected to reach 80.8 million by 2040 and 94.7 million by 2060.
The last year had a particularly cruel impact on older populations, including in Massachusetts. The virus overwhelmed many nursing homes and long-term care facilities last spring and the average age of the roughly 17,500 people here who have died of COVID-19 is 70. For others, the year was full of isolation and mandated distance from loved ones, friends and neighbors.
Festa said he was concerned in early 2020 that the pandemic “could really, really put a damper on the activities and the efforts of the age-friendly movement.” But after reading the two-year progress report submitted to AARP by the state, he said it is clear “that simply didn’t happen.”
“In fact, if anything, if we doubled the efforts of communities and partners, and people to acknowledge that challenges such as isolation and community, the need for affordable housing, the accessory dwelling unit effort to get more of them in communities, all of these kinds of things were in fact happening despite the pandemic,” he said. “And a focused attention on what an age-friendly community is all about was never diminished in any way.”
The report describes how aging services providers made new networks during the pandemic by partnering with other community groups, local police departments and faith-based groups to deliver food to older adults living alone, how businesses like grocery stores adopted “senior hours” to give older shoppers a safer experience, and how CARES Act funding supported technology training sessions to get seniors connected to family members and friends virtually.
“The COVID-19 pandemic created enormous challenges, especially for older adults. It brought economic calamity, isolation, anxiety, and fear, but also resilience, collaboration, and creativity. In the midst of this public health emergency, we witnessed the resilience of communities, including older adults, family caregivers, and the professionals who serve them,” Gov. Charlie Baker wrote in an introduction to the progress report. “If there is a silver lining in all this, it’s how organizations and individuals from every corner of Massachusetts stepped up to confront the pandemic and care for each other.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders included the same lines verbatim in her opening remarks during Thursday’s event.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 130,000 people 65 or older in Massachusetts had Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia as of 2020. Another 281,000 people here act as caregivers to people with Alzheimer’s, providing an estimated $8.6 billion worth of unpaid care.
By 2025, the number of people with Alzheimer’s dementia is projected to climb more than 15 percent to 150,000 in Massachusetts. Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and is becoming a more common cause of death as the country’s population ages, the association said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, dementia deaths were 7.1 percent higher than average and dementia deaths surpassed expectations by an estimated 524 people, the Alzheimer’s Association said.