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Helping Bostonians 'Age Strong'

The city no longer has a commission on the 'Affairs of the Elderly.' That’s a good thing. Here's why

Emily Shea (far right) and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (far left) at a 15th anniversary event

Mayors Office Photo by John Wilcox

Leading Boston's Age Strong Commission involves attending lots of celebrations. Emily Shea (far right) and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh (at podium) were featured guests at a 2018 Hispanic Heritage Month event.

In the years since Mayor Martin J. Walsh enrolled his city in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, Boston has produced an employment guide for people over 50, established age- and dementia-friendly business designations, launched an interactive map for locating public restrooms, piloted a Senior Civic Academy for people age 50-plus, and trained front-facing city employees about the needs of the older people their serve. The Age-Friendly Boston Action Plan contains 75 action items, all of which the city is working to implement.

Boston joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communites in 2014. Massachusetts joined in 2018, the second state in the nation to do so.

As commissioner of Boston’s Age Strong Commission, Emily Shea leads an office that serves as both the Area Agency on Aging and the Council on Aging and sets the direction of Boston's aging-oriented work. She played a crucial role in renaming what had been called the "Commission on Affairs of the Elderly" to "Age Strong." AARP spoke with Shea to learn what being an age-friendly community has meant to the city, why Boston rebranded its commission on aging, and what aging services directors can learn from one another. 

Emily Shea (far right) and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (second from right) at a senior citizen event

Mayors Office Photo by Isabel Leon

In February 2019, Shea and Walsh attended a Black History Month Celebration.

1. What has joining the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities meant for the city of Boston?

It’s been huge for us to join the age-friendly network. It's connected us to other people who are doing similar things in their communities. Through AARP, we can learn and network with those people. We can also share with them so they can see what we’re doing in Boston. It helps when we’re working on issues that are similar so we don’t have to recreate the wheel. 

"Our former name was the Commission on Affairs of the Elderly. It was a name that served us well for 50 years, but a lot of the people we serve weren’t connecting with the name anymore." — Emily Shea, Commissioner, Age Strong Commission

2. What are some of the tangible ways in which Boston is becoming a better community for people of all ages?

We worked with residents on a community needs assessment, so everything we’re doing in Boston is community informed and reflects the needs of our community. One neat thing we did, which has an impact on everybody in the city, is to create a restroom map. We mapped all of the public restrooms in the city. The information is available online and by calling the city's 311 number. So that’s good for mothers with little kids, and it’s good for older adults. It’s good for everybody in between.

We’re also encouraging the expansion of age- and dementia-friendly businesses. We want to make the shopping experience better for older adults, and we know that older adults have great economic purchasing power, so it’s beneficial to our businesses if they’re able to be open and friendly to that population. We’re working with local businesses through our Boston Main Streets program because we know our older adults do a lot of shopping in local businesses, and we’re making that business experience even better when they go to aging-friendly stores and restaurants.

Another thing we’re doing is training all of our front-facing staff — approximately 700 people so far— to work better with older residents. We’re thinking about things like communication techniques and understanding the signs of dementia. We’re breaking down some of the stereotypes around aging so we can provide even better customer service to our residents.

Emily Shea (laughing) and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (second from left) at a Halloween event

Mayors Office Photo by John Wilcox

Walsh and Shea greet costumed guests during a Halloween party at the Irish Social Club of Boston.

An Aging-Services Resumé

Emily Shea’s career has been focused on meeting the needs of older adults. She holds master's degrees in social work and public health, as well as a certificate in gerontology, all from Boston University.

Past positions include serving as the executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson funded Boston Partnership for Older Adults, and then as the director of elder services for the anti-poverty agency Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD).

Shea worked as the executive director of Windsor House Adult Day Health programs in Cambridge, Somerville and Framingham, Massachusetts. She has also served as the president of the Massachusetts Adult Day Services Association. 

3. The city recently changed the name of its aging commission to Age Strong. Why the name change, and what does it mean to you and to residents of the city?

Our former name was the Commission on Affairs of the Elderly. It was a name that served us well for 50 years, but a lot of the people we serve weren’t connecting with the name anymore. We’re serving people from age 55 to age 105, and it’s a very diverse community within that spread.

We did a lot of work, a lot of research around names. We actually did a lot of testing of words with our older constituents. We had a whole list of words, and we asked them to weigh in on how they felt about those words and what words they thought really reflected who they were.

“Strong” and “Experienced” rose up to the top, which I wasn’t surprised by when you think about the people we work with. We were able to use the word “Strong" and turn it into Age Strong. We've been talking with our constituents and telling them about the new name and they’re saying things like, “Age Strong? Age Strong, yes! I want to Age Strong. Age Strong, that’s me!” 

We want people to know we’re a place to come whether they're 55 or 105. We’re a place to come for information. We’re a place that appreciates all older residents have to offer to the city, and we want to work with them. I was walking by a group of constituents the other day and they started yelling to me, “Age Strong! Age Strong!” We’re seeing a lot of excitement about the name. I think that’s great.

4. What inspired Boston to think about making the city more livable and age-friendly?

In 2014, when Mayor Walsh came into office, we released a demographics report in collaboration with the UMass Boston Gerontology Institute. It showed a great growth in the older adult population in Boston and a lot of the challenges that some of our residents have. We were looking at that report and the mayor really wanted to do something about it. We knew about the AARP and World Health Organization network of age friendly communities. We wanted to be a part of that work, so Boston joined the network. 

The mayor is key to our initiative. We’re very lucky to have a mayor who’s passionate about older adults and making sure that the people who built our city can continue to live well in our city. Having his support and the support of the administration has been crucial to our effort.

Emily Shea listens to a senior citizen at an event in Boston

Mayor's Office Photo by Jeremiah Robinson

Shea speaks with a guest at a senior center St. Patrick's Day celebration in 2019.

5. Boston has dedicated resources to make changes and make Boston a great community for all. What would you recommend for a city with fewer resources?

Cities can start the work wherever they are and with whatever resources they have. They don’t have to start with a full action plan. They can concentrate on one domain or two domains. They can create an action plan of ten things they’re trying to get done over the course of the next three years. It’s really about doing the work and trying to figure out how that work can get done.

One of the things I think has been really successful in Boston is we’ve been able to build on some of the synergy of what’s going on in other places in the city. So it may be there’s a plan and that the city wants to get these 10 things done, but there are two items that are really taking off because of other things happening in community. The city needs to pay attention to that and be able to put its resources where they’re needed when the time is right.

6. What’s been the biggest challenge in Boston’s age-friendly work?

In all communities there are so many competing issues — competing for residents' time, the administration's time, and the time of the elected officials. In some ways, doing livable communities or age-friendly work is easier than some other things because the breadth is so wide, which means we’re not just focused on one issue but on a broader spectrum of issues. However, I think it can sometimes be a challenge to make sure that age-friendly stays elevated, and in people’s minds, and that we’re able to move the work forward.

7. If you had one piece of advice —or practical tip — for other aging agency directors, what would it be?

I have two pieces of advice.

The first is that you don’t need to have a lot to start this type of work. You can start it with one or two items, or you can start it with a 75-step action plan like we have. It can be started in any way and it can be built upon. That’s important to remember. Age-friendly work is more like systems change work, so it’s in addition to the day-to-day work of serving constituents. The work can be manageable, and it’s just about taking some steps in the right direction.

The other piece of advice I have is to listen to your constituents, listen to your residents. No project is going to work unless you’re listening to them and going back to them and saying, “Is this what you meant? We did these things — is this what you wanted to see? What are the other issues you’re seeing? How can we change and grow and be better?" Having that kind of two-way street with the people you’re serving is really important to the effort. 

Mike Watson is an AARP senior advisor specializing in livable communities and mayoral initiatives.
Article published May 2019

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