This week the town’s department of Health and Human Services released findings from its 2022 Needham Healthy Aging Assessment. Issued to residents 60 and older, the survey will guide the department as well as the Council on Aging (COA) in providing resources and programming for the town’s senior population.
This intake was a followup to a 2016 survey that focused on housing and transportation. After COVID, the health department wanted to take the pulse of residents who were most at risk, and in many cases most isolated. This survey was broader and evaluated the overall health, habits and wellbeing of respondents.
“The impact of the pandemic was definitely an interest for us to understand what had changed since 2016,” said Julie McCarthy, health department epidemiologist. “Isolation and loneliness and communication issues were something we thought about for the senior population.”
New data indicates that 29% of older residents feel less connected to the community. “It’s not surprising,” said McCarthy. “But it makes me feel uneasy that a quarter of our respondents feel that way.”
Jess Moss, assistant director of counseling and volunteers at the COA, said seniors want to stay connected to the town, and the survey is a good opportunity to see what new issues have come up and whether services are reaching the right people. She said COVID required the team to pivot significantly, including trying to figure out how to help seniors deal with isolation. That is something on which they continue to focus.
The Council on Aging partnered with the Needham Community Council to provide tablets and laptops to residents who needed them, a partnership that is still ongoing. “We went from a non-technical operation to a very technical operation,” she said.
“The survey showed that technology really is a bigger piece of the pie for seniors. It helped us understand that we need to continue things like the tablet program.” Moss said they have helped educate seniors on how to use the technology, and now are able to offer hybrid programs and classes.
Residents 60 and older make up 25% of Needham’s population; 738 participated in the survey, considerably more than six years prior. Many of the findings matched and furthered results from 2016, said McCarthy. Concerns about transportation and cost of living ranked high, specifically the availability of affordable housing for those who wish to downsize.
“Most of the seniors we talk to want to stay,” said Moss, “Their community is here, they built the community, they have Needham pride, but they have nowhere to go.”
Housing remains one of the biggest challenges, she said, one that is complex to tackle. “ADUs (accessory dwelling units) is a piece of that, senior living communities is a piece of that, public housing is a piece of that.”
Food access was another common theme, which McCarthy said was not surprising given the limited grocery store options that skew expensive. Access to health care — including travel to get to appointments, the availability of providers and fear of going to the doctor in the height of COVID — was also a top concern.
In response to those concerns, Moss said the council partnered with Springwell Elder services to provide free meals on weekdays, both at the Center at the Heights (CATH) and for delivery to all residents over 60. This is not a need-based program and does not have a homebound requirement.
“We realized it connected us to a population of people who we’ve never met before and don’t come into the senior center, but could really benefit from an extra meal,” said Moss.
The council also applied for grants to fund a medical taxi program to help residents get to appointments in Boston. “Our van does a lot within the town, but people needed to get to Beth Israel in Boston, for example,” she said.
Colleen Schaller, chair of the Council on Aging, said the survey does allow seniors to express their needs and what the level of need is. “I truly believe that’s something that should be done every few years just to keep abreast of what’s happening,” she said.
The COA’s mission is to provide a safe and healthy environment for the elder citizens of Needham, said Schaller. “There was a time that we had more say in what was happening, but we’re more of a supportive group than an initiative group.”
Schaller also indicated that ultimately, senior services need to be better funded. “It’s understandable that we need things done for the schools,” she said. “But seniors need stuff too. I don’t care if it’s getting the parking lot plowed or getting a door fixed, we’re the last ones on the list.”
“I think it’s a challenge because many of the issues that came up as prominent themes in the survey are no small issue,” said McCarthy. “They are systemic issues that would require much more work and a lot of departmental collaboration and policy changes.” She said as a health department, they are discussing ways to better advertise resources for seniors such as tax abatements for real estate, transportation options, the traveling meals program, the food pantry system, and programming at the CATH.
“We’re really doing a lot to keep looking at the population to see what the people need and then creating programs to meet those needs,” said Moss.
Colleen Schaller, chair of the Council on Aging, is a member of the Needham Observer board of directors.