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Making Massachusetts Communities More Livable for All Ages

An older woman standing by a van
Patricia Zaido is the co-chair of the Salem for All Ages Task Force. She says many of the city’s age-friendly initiatives, including the new Salem Skipper rideshare service, are designed to combat social isolation and loneliness of older residents.
Photo by Tony Luong

Something stood out to Patricia Zaido as she read the responses to a survey of Salem’s older residents: Many reported feeling alone and craved community connections.

One person said those over 60 are often treated as “nonexistent” and “unnecessary.” Another wanted leaders to ensure that older adults aren’t “segregated” from the rest of the community.

“The comments were moving,” said Zaido, 81, cochair of the Salem for All Ages Task Force. 

In 2015, her city became one of the first Massachusetts municipalities to join AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, which has more than 500 members nationwide. 

The program encourages local leaders to adopt policies that support accessible public transportation, affordable housing, walkable neighborhoods and other features that improve the quality of life for residents of all ages.

Salem and Boston (which, in 2014, was the first Massachusetts city to join the network) set a good example for the other 72 communities in the state that are members and for others seeking to join, said Mike Festa, state director for AARP Massachusetts. “The network is about sharing ideas and best practices,” Festa said. “Communities don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Coordinating city services

Salem has made progress on multiple fronts. To address social isolation, the city made it a priority to improve communication and transportation. 

It now mails a 10-page Salem for All Ages Resource Guide to residents when they turn 60. The guide contains information such as transportation options for older adults, meal delivery services and more. 

Salem also recently launched a low-cost rideshare service, the Salem Skipper, that anyone can use within the city, whether it’s to get to the train station, grocery store or other destination. Residents 65 and older, students and people with disabilities pay just $1 a ride; others pay $2. 

In Boston, benefits of the age-friendly initiative are evident in everything from dementia-friendly designations for businesses to the Senior Civic Academy program that helps older residents develop public advocacy skills. 

To Sandra Harris, 70, AARP Massachusetts volunteer state president and Age-Friendly Boston Advisory Council member, one key improvement is the dozens of benches designed for older adults that are outside libraries and community centers and in neighborhood business districts.

“Those benches symbolize people coming together,” Harris said. “They are like the city’s front porch.” 

Andrea Burns, director of Age-Friendly Boston, said one of the great upsides of adopting the AARP framework is the increased level of collaboration among city departments. The cooperative spirit helped Boston’s Age Strong Commission coordinate services for older residents in response to the COVID-19 crisis, including food delivery for 3,000 who were self-isolating due to the pandemic.

And this year, Age Strong staffers helped hundreds of Bostonians book appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations, often arranging transportation for those who needed rides.

Learn more about age-friendly communities at aarp.org/livable or at aarp.org/ma.

Jill Gambon is a writer living in West Newbury, Mass.

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