A survey being circulated by Health Aging Martha’s Vineyard (HAMV) seeks to more fully understand Islanders who are age 60 and up. 

With individuals in this age group making up more than 33 percent of the Island population, executive director for HAMV, Cindy Trish, said the survey is essential to understanding the situations that many older Islanders live in today.

“There are so many ways we can use this knowledge to inform our thinking as an organization,” Trish said. 

According to Trish, older peoples’ lives are changing drastically due to COVID-19, and HAMV is hoping to chronicle those changes in order to best provide for the community they serve.

With questions surrounding employment, food security, access to and understanding of technology, levels of social isolation, and other facets of older-adult living, Trish said the survey is meant to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Island’s older population.

“We really believe in data, not opinion,” Trish said. “There are still many elements of life for older Islanders that are very unclear to us. We want to understand how these folks live, in order to adapt our services to accommodate their needs.”

Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) acts as the fiscal agent for HAMV, and Trish said that once the needs of the older adult community are identified, Healthy Aging’s programs will incorporate that knowledge into their daily work.

One thing Trish said the survey hopes to uncover is the level of comfortability and access surrounding technology. More specifically, ways of communicating with friends, family members, and doctors.

“One of the real drivers is telemedicine,” Trish said. “That became a necessity for insurance companies and Medicare agreed to pay for those virtual experiences once the pandemic hit.”

She said the fact that older adults can connect with their healthcare providers without leaving the safety of their homes is a “huge driver” for access to the internet.

Without a comprehensive survey, Trish said it was hard to know whether people had access to computers, the internet, or even working phone lines. 

HAMV is working with a clinician at MVCS who visits older adults who are socially isolated and mentally or physically incapable of leaving their homes. 

Trish said that, for those folks who are either disabled or immunocompromised, access to the internet is even more essential.

Figures on food security are another important data set that HAMV hopes to glean from the survey. This issue relates directly to financial stability, access to transportation, and access to consistent housing.

If individuals can’t afford food, they become food insecure, same as if they cannot drive a car or go to the grocery store on their own. Similarly, if someone doesn’t have access to the internet, Trish said, they might not be able to find information about food banks and other community food initiatives. 

Most of these problems have existed forever on-Island, but Trish said the pandemic has exacerbated the situation for older adults.

“How do you live a quality life in COVID times? And how do we adapt as an Island to meeting those needs?” Trish asked.

The information from the survey will be compiled and analyzed in working groups, and as HAMV forwards its own initiatives, the data will be disseminated among Island town boards and benevolent organizations to support their goals as well.

“This information is an Island asset, it will be made available to everyone, and will hopefully be used by everyone,” Trish said.

For HAMV, understanding the Island’s older adult population isn’t just about coming up with ways to help them — Trish said the survey also seeks to understand how older adults can serve as assets to the Island.

“We have many skilled and dedicated older folks here, and many of them are ready and willing to contribute,” Trish said.

Individuals who fill out the survey are not required to provide any personally identifiable information, but information is collected about ethnicity, income level, and part- or full-time residency. 

Anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable answering a particular question can skip it, but Trish said the more information HAMV gets from the survey, the more advanced modeling they can do to see the relationship between different elements of Island living as an older adult.

As HAMV continues to plan for the future, Trish said the survey will help guide the organization’s priorities in one-year, five-year, and ten-year plans. 

In the last survey, Trish said HAMV received a wealth of information relating to long-term care for older adults, and the need for skilled nursing facilities. 

That data was a catalyst to begin conversations amongst the towns, the hospital, and other organizations that Trish said resulted in the development of the Green House Elder Homes brought to the Island by Navigator Elder Homes. 

According to Trish, the Green House model will revolutionize elder care on-Island, and that initiative was informed largely by the survey.

Almost 97 percent of Islanders have said they prefer to age in place in their homes, but Trish said this creates questions about changes that might need to be made inside the home for folks to age safely and comfortably.

“There was no real program to do this, so the hospital community program wrote a proposal and funded a grant for a housing safety modification program in conjunction with Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association. It’s a referral program where we identify individuals who could benefit from housing modifications,” Trish said. Things like additional bannisters and grab bars, ramps, and better lighting are all accommodations that were identified in past surveys.

In the last survey, the issue of uneven brick sidewalks in Edgartown was brought up, so that became an action item for town entities to work off of and improve their infrastructure for older folks, Trish said.

“We ask questions about what Island features people appreciate, and where there is room for improvement,” Trish said. “A lot of this information won’t be a surprise to anyone, but it will be a powerful point of information to include in grants and other opportunities for town planners.”

Oak Bluffs planning board chair Ewell Hopkins said when HAMV was formulating the survey, they asked the towns for input on what should be included. 

He said he was pleased to see that many of the recommendations and comments from town planners and selectmen were taken into account in the survey.

Initially, Hopkins said he was concerned that the town of Oak Bluffs was trying to provide information and communicate with members of the public through their website and social media, but they weren’t sure how effective that was for older Islanders.

“One thing in the survey is are you currently online? Do you have access to the town websites, do you have a social media account? It really gets down to whether we can communicate effectively with our older population via technology,” Hopkins said. “We just had a tornado warning with all of our phones blowing up, but is that an effective way to reach this segment of the population?”

He said he appreciates HAMV’s goal of working collaboratively with other community organizations and entities to gain a holistic understanding of a major segment of the population. 

“Working to demystify any demographic is critical. People don’t realize that this thing starts as early as age 60 — that is a huge portion of the population,” Hopkins said. 

For Hopkins, who is no stranger to gathering facts and figures from the public, he said planners, commissioners, and other town officials so often hear from a “vocal minority” of people, they rarely get a cross section of the entire community.

And although there are plenty of stories of older folks missing out on food donation programs because of lack of internet access, or rising food insecurity due to inadequate access to transportation, Hopkins said facts and figures are what inform community initiatives — not stories.

“Anecdotal evidence is inherently biased, it’s based on what you know or don’t know. I don’t believe we fully understand the reality of our elderly population because it is so diverse, from people who are very resourceful economically, to those living on the margins,” Hopkins said.

What is in common, according to Hopkins, is the lack of mobility, the need for assistance, and the emotional state caused by isolation during COVID.

And because not everyone on-Island knows how to self-advocate, Hopkins said the survey makes it easy for older Island voices to be heard, and for those voices to guide how towns spend time and resources.

“I think we often get a skewed view of what those goals should be because we are only hearing from the savvy individuals,” Hopkins said. “That doesn’t really accurately represent the breadth of need in our community.”

Islanders age 60 and up can fill out the survey in English or Portuguese on the HAMV website. 

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