Aging in the Berkshires
A little-known movement with a large-scale mission—to create a community that is more livable for people of all ages, especially the older population—has been making great strides across the county. The name says it all: Age Friendly Berkshires. And its purpose is to change the culture around aging and to show how we can do things better.
“When people hear ‘aging,’ they think of only older adults, but we are all aging all the time, so these are issues that affect us all,” says Peg McDonough, who joined Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, or BRPC, in 2017 as coordinator of Age Friendly Berkshires.
To put that in a statistical context: Berkshire County has a median age of 44, older than the state (39) and the country (36). At least half of all Berkshire residents will be over 50 by 2030. There are more residents over 65 than there are under 18. So the conversation around aging is arguably important—and imminent (no more “silver tsunami”).
“We need to refresh our thinking about what it means to be over 50,” says Laura Brennan, senior planner for BRPC. People are working and staying active longer—some even become more active as they get older. Indeed, the average life expectancy in Massachusetts is 80-plus years. “We’re all in this trajectory together, so it’s not just about saying we need young people to move here,” says Brennan. “The older adults who are already here have so much to offer.”
Age Friendly Berkshires was founded in 2014 by Bobbie Orsi, director of community outreach for Home Instead Senior Care. Her husband had been diagnosed with dementia, and she began questioning what her life would look like in her 70s and 80s. The nursing home situation here was not what she envisioned, and assisted living situations are expensive. There’s a shortage of elder-care providers and medical specialists as well. “What does that mean for those of us who want to age in place, in our own homes and in our own communities?” she asked.
Research led Orsi to the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program, launched in 2006 when the baby boomer generation everywhere was entering retirement. The U.S. AARP-administered network currently counts 339 “livable communities” and four member states. (New York was first; Massachusetts second.) Age Friendly Berkshires, or AFB, was among the first to seek a county rather than city or town designation, given there are 128,000 residents spread across 950 square miles and amongst 32 towns. “We are a small county, we are connected, and we travel across municipal lines for care and culture,” says Orsi.
As early adopters, AFB has been widely touted for leading the age-friendly charge. “We’ve put ourselves on the map for having a cluster of towns,” says state Senator Adam Hinds. “Part of it is demographics; we do have an aging population. We also have this culture of working together across services, so that’s been influential.”
Armed with the necessary backing—two municipalities (North Adams and Pittsfield), a survey of some 1,000 residents, an advisory group (the Active Agers), and a task force of leaders in the community—Orsi received a multi-year planning grant from the Tufts Foundation to develop an action plan based on the eight “domains of livability” (including transportation, housing, healthcare), as prescribed by the network.
Now that that region-wide action plan is in the implementation phase, AFB is looking systematically at the eight domains to ensure residents are getting the services they need to function fully at any age or stage. Take housing, which by and large consists of single-family homes except in the cities and an older housing stock with pockets of high rent. “Broadening the variety of options is absolutely necessary, as is renovating what we have rather than letting it languish,” says Brennan.
AFB is encouraging towns not only to seek housing grants, but also to examine their often antiquated zoning laws. In a move in the positive direction, Egremont passed an accessory dwelling unit bylaw so homeowners can carve out a small apartment to house a caregiver or even rent to a young couple for extra income; Sheffield is following suit.
The transportation issue impacts everyone but hits older adults the hardest. Taxis are cost-prohibitive given the long distances. Expanding public transit is not as simple as adding bus routes. McDonough sees curb-to-curb or transportation hub-to-hub as part of the solution, especially for bringing people in from the edges. To that end, AFB is supporting the development of volunteer driving programs and villages, whereby neighbor helps neighbor—say, a younger member drives an older member who in exchange helps out with bill paying. Volunteers of any age are encouraged to participate. “We feel these grassroots communities will be a way of delivering on a lot of what we are trying to do,” says McDonough.
The frontrunner of the village concept is Villages of the Berkshires, founded by Howard and Shirley Shapiro to provide a means for the community to assist members with their needs. So far, 20 households have signed up to be members, and the Shapiros plan to expand slowly while they gain their footing and recruit volunteers. They have learned through focus groups that their members want social interaction across all ages. So the Shapiros envision, for instance, students from area schools helping with household tasks, and members helping families by greeting children when they come home from school.
As the central hub with many spokes, Villages of the Berkshires plans to be the administrator of other villages throughout the county, starting with SAGE (Sheffield, Alford, Great Barrington, and Egremont). SAGE chair Bruce Bernstein has been instrumental in improving pedestrian road safety through Be Safe, Be Seen, which works with the police department to distribute neon vests, and by bringing the Complete Streets Funding Program—improving accessibility for walking, biking, and other forms of transportation—to Egremont.
As a coalition, AFB sees public and private organizations as essential partners, particularly cultural organizations that derive so much support from an older audience.
The Berkshire Museum, for one, has begun hosting weekly tours for older adults and people with dementia at the behest of Roger Gutwillig, a docent and AFB task force member. “We’ve wanted to extend our conversation about diversity and inclusion to recognize there is a large older population that has not traditionally been represented,” says Craig Langlois, chief experience officer for the museum.
And, of course, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI, is literally shifting the discourse around ageism with everything it does. “Our recent University Day was organized around the age-friendly action plan,” says OLLI executive director Megan Whilden. AFB and OLLI are conducting a volunteer day on November 15 with United Way and Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires to encourage employment and volunteerism for older adults.
Although AFB has been functioning at full tilt despite remaining under the radar, raising the profile will only expedite its efforts. Hence, Gutwillig developed a promotional video to shine a light on organizations such as Northern Berkshire Community Coalition that are already doing innovative things. “The intergenerational aspect also resonated with everyone involved,” says Gutwillig, referring to “Moving Life Stories,” an interpretive dance that paired teenagers and nonagenarians from Kimball Farms put on by Berkshire Pulse, where youth and adults can co-mingle creatively year-round at community classes in tai chi, ballet, flamenco, and more.
In a similar vein, WAM Theatre’s first-ever Elder Ensemble workshopped a devised piece with the Teen Ensemble, reaching 400 people over four performances. “This experience cracked open the chasm between the two age groups, breaking down stereotypes and humanizing their issues,” says associate artistic director Talya Kingston. High school sophomore Makenna Albee came away with a sense of shared views and common ground. “We learned that we have experienced similar things even though we grew up at different times.”
What’s remarkable about these connections is how they alleviate a sense of isolation and loneliness—widely considered to be an epidemic here. “A lot of older adults live in remote areas and receive rehab at home,” says McDonough, who is working with a research doctor on getting the funding to conduct door-to-door interviews. “It is becoming a top priority.”
McDonough also is tasked with getting each of the 32 towns to officially get age-friendly status. To date, nine have signed on: Adams, Cheshire, Dalton, Hinsdale, Lanesborough, Lenox, North Adams, Pittsfield, and Sheffield.
“The great thing about AFB is that you start with a statement that we want to be a city for everyone,” says North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard. “Then we decide what age friendly means for our city through advocacy and a lot of listening.”
Adds McDonough: “Whenever I call someone and say what we are doing, no one has ever said no. This movement is only getting bigger.”