The results of the latest survey of Harvard’s senior population, conducted by the Council on Aging board of directors between November 2016 and January 2017, showed the same needs as those of an earlier poll conducted 10 years ago: opportunities to downsize, relief from high property taxes, and more services. But with the increased “graying” of Harvard, those needs are now more far reaching.
Several months ago, the selectmen requested that the Council on Aging board of directors conduct a survey of town seniors’ needs and priorities as a way of helping the Board of Selectmen gauge whether or not to support moving ahead with an addition to Hildreth House senior center despite its cost. The so-called Phase 2 would add a dining room, multipurpose room, renovated kitchen, and an additional bathroom. In a report to the selectmen last week, Co-chairwomen Katie Petrossi and Deb Thomson said the survey results showed 78 percent of respondents support an expansion of Hildreth House, despite the added tax burden it would bring. The results also revealed much about the needs, concerns, and plans of Harvard seniors, which will help the COA and its board prioritize their efforts.
In some opening remarks, Petrossi, who has a doctorate in gerontology and created the survey, said, “The much-anticipated graying of America is upon us, and the reality of 10,000 people turning 65 each day will continue for decades.” She added that Harvard is “graying” at a rate faster than the rest of the country. With less than 5 percent of older adults living in nursing homes, Harvard, like all towns across America, is tasked with helping its senior citizens to age in place, at home in their communities. She said that in the past five years, the Harvard COA has seen a 65 percent increase in attendance at meals, 90 percent rise in use of the COA van, and 130 percent increase in the need for social services. In addition, said Petrossi, there is increasing interest in having more space. The more frequently seniors use COA services, the more likely they are to support improving Hildreth House, she concluded.
Petrossi said that of the 287 responders, what she called a good return at almost one in five of the town’s senior population, most were in their 60s and 70s, female, living with a spouse, active drivers, and had lived in town more than 20 years. With 63 percent intending to stay in Harvard as they age and 90 percent saying an active COA is important, Petrossi said “town officials need to support and prioritize the functions of the COA, Harvard’s only dedicated agency meeting elder needs.”
Petrossi suggested that the survey highlighted a number of issues that will help the COA board increase its advocacy efforts. Of the 137 people saying they plan to move away from Harvard, 89 cited property taxes as a reason. This suggests that the COA board might advocate for some kind of tax break for seniors who are house-poor, in addition to programs already in place. Some of these people could relieve the tax burden by moving to a smaller home in town, but 64 comments pointed out the current lack of opportunities to downsize. The COA continues to advocate for senior housing in town. Respondents commented on the lack of amenities in town—grocery store, drugstore, gas station; and 22 people pointed out the “inadequate senior services in Harvard.” Petrossi raised the question of whether or not seniors are getting appropriate services in relation to their taxes. Of the town’s budget, very little goes to the COA, far less than to other areas, she said.
At the presentation, Selectwoman Alice von Loesecke, who, along with Selectwoman Lucy Wallace, had framed a couple of the survey questions, said she was surprised that on a question asking what people see as most important, respondents ranked meals fourth. In a follow-up phone conversation, Petrossi further explained how she interpreted this question’s rankings, which placed programs first, transportation and outreach about equal as second, and meals fourth. She said the rankings show the diversity of the seniors the COA serves and are also predictive of future needs. Of the 24 respondents who ranked meals as number one, most are more elderly and already having meals at Hildreth House. That number to whom meals matter most, also coincides with the capacity of the present dining room.
It was not surprising, Petrossi said, that programs ranked highest. Younger seniors and people newly retired—currently the largest group of seniors—would see programs as most important, whether they are exercise, cultural, wellness, financial, medical, or trips. Young adults helping their aging parents either here or away find outreach and social services important, as do older seniors and those in transition. Transportation for trips or medical appointments is helpful to lots of seniors, whether or not they drive on their own.
In addition to showing the diversity of clientele served by the COA, Petrossi sees the rankings as predictive: Those people who are currently in more active programs will, in the future, seek the more basic services of the COA—meals and social services. That’s the pattern of usage at a senior center, Petrossi said, adding, “We need a building that can meet the needs of a diverse population.”
Chairman Ken Swanton said he was pleased with the high number of respondents, but he couldn’t help wondering about the thoughts of all those who didn’t respond. Still, he said, the information will be very helpful. He complimented the survey and thanked Petrossi for her efforts.
For now, the survey showed that common complaints about parking and lighting at Hildreth House have been alleviated by the recently completed safety and accessibility renovation of Phase 1. Along with touting the improved safety and comfort of Hildreth House, the survey suggests that increasing evening programs and offering topics relevant to younger seniors, more intergenerational programs, and forums on grandparenting issues would be good areas for COA focus.