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Boston Offers Rich Cultural, Educational Experiences for Older Adults

Despite the high cost of housing, older adults still trek to the city

View of a street intersection in an urban neighborhood

Noah Willman

Charlestown neighborhood in Boston

En español | Charlie Petit strolls to breakfast at a diner near his condo in Boston's South End, puts in an order for the weekday special and ruminates about why he stayed in Boston in his retirement years.

There's the culture, says the 62-year-old former chief financial officer at a local college. He can walk to Symphony Hall, a few blocks away, and hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Then there's the academic sector; Petit takes the subway to classes for people over 55 offered by a lifelong learning institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. He has a UMass student ID card and, as a result, a discount on those BSO concerts.

He appreciates the free cooking demonstrations by local chefs, hosted for residents 60 and older by the city in the Boston Public Market downtown. And the health care is among the world's best.

"Boston is a manageable city,” Petit says over his eggs and toast at Mike's City Diner. “It's not too big. It's walkable. For older people, it's easier to maneuver."

Boston at a Glance

  • Population: 695,926
  • Portion of population 50 and older: 25.4 percent
  • Median home value: $575,200
  • Median household income: $71,834
  • Unemployment rate: 2.8 percent

This is not exactly the image outsiders may have of this northeastern metropolis. The university-centric city has a youthful population — the median age of residents is 32, compared with the national median of 38 — and the city throws some challenges at older residents, not the least of which are housing prices that rank among the nation's highest. But the population of residents 60 and older is growing, projected to increase by 53 percent by 2030.

To understand the needs of older residents, officials spent about half a year holding 25 listening sessions with more than 800 people 50 and older; it surveyed 3,629 more. “This isn't a bunch of people inside city government making these decisions,” says Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “This is about hearing from older Bostonians themselves."

The long to-do list for city agencies included:

  • Mapping public restrooms.
  • Installing age-friendly benches.
  • Piloting a program called the Age and Dementia Friendly-Business Designation to help customers in need.

Boston even changed the name of its Commission on Affairs of the Elderly for a more positive image. As of this year, it's the Age Strong Commission.

The key to this transformation was involving almost every municipal department in this work, rather than just one. That was a big departure from the way things used to happen, says Jan Mutchler, director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at UMass-Boston. “It's pushing out the message to all of those offices that this really is an issue for them, too."

two people walk along the greenway park area in boston with the city skyline rising up above them across a lawn

Noah Willman

Greenway Park in Boston

Still, one big issue for Boston residents of any age is the high cost of housing. The average monthly rent is $3,509, the research firm Yardi Matrix reports. That's almost 2.5 times the national average. Even residents who own their home face spiraling valuations that push up their property taxes.

"I've lost a lot of neighbors,” says Alice Fisher, 78, a South End resident. “They might have bought that house for $40,000 in the 1960s, and now the taxes are for a house that's worth $3 million.” (Residents 65 and older can file for property tax abatements.)

Renters face another threat: Landlords sue to evict about 40,000 of them a year statewide, according to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Walsh is pushing legislation banning no-fault eviction for people over 75 and limiting rent increases for them; landlords say they might not rent to older tenants if that happens.

As this debate continues, the city has a goal to build 2,000 units of low-income senior rental housing by 2030 — in part with money from a 1 percent property tax surcharge approved by voters. And the mayor is advocating legislation that would increase funding to build more affordable housing. Boston has a small but growing pilot program to pair seniors with younger residents who can help with chores. And the city offers help with finding good housing, with applications for heating fuel assistance, and in housing court in case of a dispute.

All of this work is important to the future of Boston, Walsh says. “In a lot of cities in America, you have people leaving, and you're left with one demographic, one age group,” he says. Boston, by comparison, is growing at both ends of the age spectrum, with empty nesters from the suburbs moving in. “That's a nice place to be as a city. You just have to make sure all those challenges are being met."

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