UMass report explores how Bostonians experience aging

Six institutes and centers at the University of Massachusetts Boston each contributed to a new report entitled “Aging Strong for All: Examining Aging Equity in the City of Boston.” The directors of the six studies are the authors of this article: Jan Mutchler, Paul Watanabe, Cedric Woods, Lorna Rivera, Quito Swan, and Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson.

Everybody ages. But how we experience aging in the city of Boston differs depending on our race, ethnicity, and gender. The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically demonstrates this: Congested living situations, pre-existing health conditions, or a lack of resources to keep oneself safe are factors that have disproportionately impacted residents of color. But these disparities did not occur overnight. Inequities across one’s life contribute to the inability of people to thrive in later life.

It has never been more critical to strategically pursue greater equity in the aging experience in Boston. Why?

The number of Boston residents aged 60 or older increased dramatically in the last decade and persons of color now make up one-half of Boston’s older adults. In addition, persons of color make up an even larger share of Boston residents aged 50-59 who will be aging into their 60s over the current decade, indicating greater numbers of older people who are persons of color moving forward.

Our new report documents disparities across three dimensions that impact our quality of life — economic security, health, and social engagement. The report also identifies opportunities for stakeholders to promote an environment in which “aging strong” is possible for all Boston residents.

Currently, substantial disparities in the aging experience exist across racial and ethnic groups in Boston. For example: Poverty rates are especially high among Asian Americans and Latinos, and more than one-third of these residents age 60 or older live in households with incomes below the federal poverty line. The federal poverty line ist $12,880 a year for people who live alone, and $17,420 for two-person households.

Some groups have lower access to Social Security benefits, which serve as the financial foundation for many people in retirement. For example, while eight out of ten Black, White or Native American people age 66 or older receive Social Security benefits, fewer than two-thirds of Latinos and Asian Americans do.

Housing costs in Boston place a heavy burden on older residents and at least of Boston’s renters age 60 or older pay more than 30 percent of their incomes for housing. Fewer homeowners bear such a heavy cost burden for housing, but older Black, Latino and Native American homeowners are at amplified risk for being cost-burdened.

Racial disparities in health and disability are substantial among older Boston residents, with older Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans having an especially high risk of health challenges and disability. For example, more than one out of four Blacks aged 50-59 have at least one disability, a higher disability rate than Whites who are in their 60s (19 percent).

Community strengths in terms of mutual support, resilience, and cultural cohesion offset or buffer aspects of disadvantage for some people. Yet access to information may be challenging for older communities of color, many of whom have limited knowledge of English. In addition, a larger share of older persons of color do not have access to digital technology like having internet at home or owning a smartphone.

Last summer another reflection of how systemic racism perpetuates disparities emerged in the highly visible tragic deaths and shootings of a number of African Americans nationwide. And another current example of the victimization of people of color is the unabated anti-Asian racism leveled at Asian Americans, especially the aged.

Physical damage and emotional distress have impacted the community due to harassment, bullying, and, in some cases, lethal attacks. Fear has gripped large segments of the community who feel safe only when in their homes. Coupled with the disproportionate burden of Covid-19 illness and death among people of color, stakeholders share a growing recognition of the powerful ways in which inequity, racism, and discrimination shape health outcomes and the aging experience, amplifying the need to examine and correct inequities in aging.

Promoting “aging equity” is an important goal for Boston, and for other cities and communities throughout the US. Aging equity means ensuring that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to age well. Leveling the playing field for older Boston residents to pursue healthy aging requires removing the obstacles to accessing community features that support healthy aging—like healthcare and safe environments, as well as sharing information in a variety of languages.

Organizations that serve older people must ensure that their capacity not only expands to meet the growing numbers of older residents, but also shifts to adequately serve the needs of a more diverse older population. And in Boston, a city of many distinct and beloved neighborhoods, it will require efforts to ensure that the assets promoting healthy aging are distributed equitably across locations and communities. Taking measures to improve aging equity is important now, and for generations of Boston’s residents yet to come.

Jan Mutchler, PhD, is the director of The Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging. Paul Watanabe, PhD, is the director of the Institute for Asian American Studies. Cedric Woods, PhD, is the director of The Institute for New England Native American Studies. Lorna Rivera, PhD, is the director of The Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy. Quito Swan, PhD, is director of The William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture. Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson, PhD, is director of The Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy.

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