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Part of an age-friendly city: advocacy training for elders

Elderly Commission’s Boston Senior Civic Academy helps seniors learn how to navigate city bureaucracy

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Part of an age-friendly city: advocacy training for elders
Marchelle Raynor (front) and other Senior Civic Academy participants learn about advocacy and local government. PHOTO: CASSANDRA BAPTISTA/COURTESY BOSTON ELDERLY COMMISSION

For five weeks last spring, a group of 25 older adults from 10 of Boston’s neighborhoods gathered in daylong sessions to learn how to navigate government bureaucracies and advocate for aging-related issues.

The Boston Senior Civic Academy, organized by the city’s Elderly Commission and researchers from University of Massachusetts-Boston’s Gerontology Institute, included visits to city, state and federal government buildings and opportunities to meet and hear from more than 40 people who help craft policies that affect aging in Boston.

The first Age-Friendly Boston Senior Civic Academy cohort on graduation day, May 18, 2018. PHOTO: CASSANDRA BAPTISTA/COURTESY BOSTON ELDERLY COMMISSION

The first Age-Friendly Boston Senior Civic Academy cohort on graduation day, May 18, 2018. PHOTO: CASSANDRA BAPTISTA/COURTESY BOSTON ELDERLY COMMISSION

“We met the people who rule over transportation, the MBTA, getting the street lights to work,” said Marchelle Raynor, 72, a retired social worker who has lived in Roxbury for 51 years with her husband, James. “It was quite interesting, because you wouldn’t normally go into those buildings.”

Raynor also noted the value of meeting peers from across the city, known for its insular neighborhoods.

“It was very interesting to know there were that many vital seniors in Boston,” she told the Banner. “You think of your own neighborhood, but you don’t think always about the whole city.”

The group ranged in age from 61 to 86 and represented a diverse cross-section of the city, hailing from Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, South End, South Boston, Back Bay, West Roxbury, West End and Charlestown. Along the way they completed homework assignments, and on the last day, delivered short speeches meant to persuade an elected official on a chosen issue.

Making Boston age-friendly

The Civic Academy is part of Age-Friendly Boston, a multi-pronged initiative to make the city more welcoming and supportive of its older residents. The initiative began in 2014 when Mayor Martin Walsh joined the World Health Organization’s Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities through its U.S. affiliate, AARP.

The idea for the Senior Civic Academy sprang directly from a series of initial listening sessions.

“We heard that older adults didn’t feel listened to by elected officials. They wanted to know how to advocate,” said Age-Friendly Boston Director Andrea Burns.

Boston’s initiative follows WHO’s eight domains of age-friendliness — including such topics as housing, transportation, civic participation, communication, and outdoor spaces and buildings — and adds three overarching themes: dementia friendliness, economic insecurity and social isolation.

In a years-long process, city officials, UMass researchers, elder-serving agencies and older adult residents worked to assess needs through community meetings and surveys, generate a lengthy list of ideas for age-friendly improvements and winnow that list down to 75 action items, formalized in a May 2017 action plan.

The need

While Boston is often seen as a mecca for college students, its elder population is expanding. The number of Bostonians over age 60 is projected to grow from 88,000 in 2010 to 125,000 by 2030, rising from 14 percent to about 19 percent of the city’s population, according to figures from the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute cited in the Age-Friendly Boston Action Plan.

What’s more, four in 10 Boston older adults live with a disability, including difficulty walking or climbing stairs — a particular challenge in a city full of older homes, including the brick row houses and iconic wooden triple-deckers that characterize local neighborhoods. And an estimated 16.5 percent of Boston residents age 65 and up have Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia.

Some Age-Friendly Boston actions respond to physical issues, for instance lengthening crosswalk signal times, installing benches and compiling an inventory of programs and services that help older adults stay in their homes. Others aim for a dementia-friendly community, such as training city staff to respond appropriately to signs of dementia and creating an “Age-Friendly/Dementia-Friendly Business” designation.

Best practice: include elders in the process

WHO’s global age-friendly network has grown from 33 cities in 2006 to more than 700 cities today in 39 countries, according to researchers at the Gerontological Society of America’s 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting held in Boston in November.

At the GSA conference, several sessions touched on Age-Friendly Cities. While cities such as Brussels, Montreal and Manchester, England have planned and implemented age-friendly programs differently, one “best practice” that has emerged is involving local elders directly in the process.

In one example, researchers from University of Manchester described recruiting and training older adults to be “co-researchers” who interviewed other elders on their experiences and needs.

In Boston, the Civic Academy is one form of elder involvement, but older residents have participated at every stage. City officials and UMass researchers engaged some 4,000 older residents in the initial phases, with listening sessions conducted in four languages and surveys in six languages. Older residents served in action planning work groups, where they whittled the hundreds of ideas down to 75 action items.

“No initiative is going to be successful unless you’re engaging residents,” said Emily Shea, Boston’s Commissioner for Affairs of the Elderly. “Throughout the process, we went back out into community to meet with groups of older adults to help prioritize.”

Academic partnership

Shea and Burns cited several Age-Friendly Boston success factors so far: strong support from the mayor; being able to weave age-friendly elements into the city’s other planning efforts across departments; and the academic partnership, funded by Tufts Health Plan Foundation, with UMass Boston.

At the GSA conference, Dr. Caitlin E. Coyle, a research fellow at UMass Boston’s Center for Social & Demographic Research on Aging, described the Age-Friendly Boston initiative and her team’s involvement.

Coyle said that more than 70 organizations and departments participated in compiling a “laundry list” of ideas from the listening sessions and surveys.

“We had wonderful ideas. All kinds of ideas. Too many ideas,” Coyle said. Then, an action planning committee, predominantly led by city residents, took the next step — narrowing the list down.

Participation by local elders provided an essential on-the-ground perspective.

“They could say, ‘This isn’t going to work,’ or ‘This might work, but only in that neighborhood or only with this population,’” Coyle said. “So they really helped us talk through the realities.”

The new advocates speak

At the final 2018 Civic Academy session in May at the Massachusetts AARP office downtown, each participant delivered a two-minute “elevator speech” to convey an aging-related issue to an elected official.

Marchelle Raynor’s issue was housing, particularly the difficulty for older homeowners whose income falls just above the threshold for city assistance.

“I have a triple-decker,” she noted, speaking as if to the mayor. “The issue is being able to do the structural repairs that I know that we’ll need as we age in place. Some of us have had pretty good jobs, and even have good pensions, but we’re still not the ‘assisted-living rich.’ So I’d like you to look at reexamining the guidelines.”

She summed it up with a final push: “Seniors are the stability in the community. As we gentrify, as buildings become different shapes and sizes, we really need to have our seniors age in place.”

Other graduates spoke about issues of health, crime and safety.

“I don’t need you to solve world peace or make me younger,” said a resident of Pond Street in Jamaica Plain. “I’m asking for mitigation of a problem on my street — traffic volume and speed.”

Some had been active in policy before — Raynor, for instance, had served on the Boston School Committee — but for others, it was the first foray.

“I am new to this senior stuff,” said one participant before her speech. “I was pretty hesitant, but I’m feeling great now. I’ve learned so much from everybody.”

Results and next steps

The Senior Civic Academy model is likely to spread across Massachusetts. UMass researchers are working with the nonprofit Massachusetts Councils on Aging on replicating or adapting the format for other communities.

Mary Kay Browne, MCOA’s special projects director, said efforts like the Civic Academy help further one of her organization’s goals, increasing the number of older adult voices in policy conversations. Boston’s inaugural effort, she noted, addressed some key barriers that keep elders out of advocacy — lack of information and lack of advocacy skills — and involved both learning and practice.

The UMass team helped devise the Civic Academy and track participants’ advocacy actions and civic involvement. Coyle furnished examples of actions graduates reported in follow-up interviews: one participated in a get-out-the-vote action and has reached out to isolated elders; one was invited to join an agency’s advisory board; another educated a neighbor on the city’s 311 citizen alert system to report a water leak; one testified at a city council hearing; and one had summoned new courage to take action when vehicles blocked wheelchair access to crosswalks.

Raynor, speaking with the Banner, mentioned participating in door-to-door canvassing in Mattapan to advise elder homeowners on city services such as fuel assistance.

“People don’t realize there are city departments that can help you,” she said.

What’s next for the Civic Academy in Boston? The Elderly Commission is planning to hold a reunion soon for the 2018 cohort and to launch a second session in April. Details are still being worked out for both, Shea said.

Sandra Larson wrote this article with fellowship support from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the John A. Hartford Foundation.

On the web

Age-Friendly Boston:

Civic Academy 2018:

World Health Organization 8 Domains of Livability:

Age-Friendly Boston Action Plan:

Center for Social & Demographic Research on Aging:

Massachusetts Councils on Aging: