Everybody ages. But being older differs substantially based upon one’s race, ethnicity and gender. Late life disparities in health, as well as in financial and social well-being, stem from disparate experiences spanning the life course. Barriers to participating in education and training that prepare young people for stable, well-paying careers result in people of color having lower incomes and less wealth, on average, as they enter later life.
Greater exposure to unhealthy environments and limited access to healthcare result in health disparities that start early and ripple throughout the life-course, impacting health and disability, and reducing the chances that some people will survive to old age at all. Stress resulting from bias and discrimination has well-known impacts on health, with consequences lasting a lifetime. The effects of these inequities compound with age and result in older persons of color facing significant challenges to healthy aging.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into vivid relief the cost of inequity, racism and discrimination, as these factors have contributed to the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 illness and death among people of color. Over the past year another reflection of how systemic racism perpetuates disparities emerged in the highly visible and tragic deaths and shootings of several African Americans. The unabated racism and recent attacks leveled at Asian Americans represent yet another example of the victimization of people of color.
The trauma, grief and loss experienced by communities that are most directly impacted by systemic racism have disproportionate consequences for today’s older adults, and will shape aging experiences across generations.
New Study Documents Disparities in Aging
In a new report, “Aging Strong for All: Examining Aging Equity in the City of Boston,” our team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston documents disparities in aging across three dimensions that impact quality of life among older Boston residents—financial security, health and social engagement. We document lower financial security among people of color; for example, poverty rates are especially high among Asian Americans and Latinos, in part because of their disproportionately low access to Social Security benefits, and lower levels of wealth-building through homeownership.
Disparities in health and disability are substantial among Boston residents, with older Blacks and Latinos having especially high risks of health challenges and disability. More than one out of four Blacks ages 50 to 59 has at least one disability, a higher disability rate than whites who are in their 60s (19 percent).
‘Age-friendly initiatives are natural facilitators for developing equitable aging environments.’
Community strengths in terms of mutual support, resilience and cultural cohesion offset or buffer aspects of disadvantage for some people. Yet access to information may be challenging for older communities of color, many of whom have limited knowledge of English. In addition, a larger share of older persons of color are on the “wrong side” of the digital divide, having no Internet at home or not having access to a smartphone.
Our report begs the question of what it means to achieve equity in the experience of getting older, which we call “aging equity.” Aging equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to age well in their own community. Age-friendly efforts can advance this cause, and Age-friendly Boston, now in its sixth year, has made the commitment to do so.
Age-friendly Efforts Must Include Equitable Solutions
Seeking to ensure that community features align with the needs and interests of all residents is essential in addressing disparity. For Boston, a city that is “majority-minority,” including among those ages 60 and older, this means that communication mechanisms, participation opportunities, housing options and other features that form the bedrock of an age-friendly effort must be informed by the racial, cultural and linguistic characteristics of older residents.
A second essential component is minimizing obstacles to taking advantage of existing resources, services and supports, such as transportation or communication barriers. Many of those obstacles disproportionately impact people of color, so these efforts also can promote aging equity.
Finally, pursuing aging equity must incorporate awareness of the spatial distribution of populations and resources. In Boston, a city of many distinct neighborhoods, aging equity requires that the assets promoting healthy aging are distributed equitably across locations and communities. Examples of ways in which Age-friendly Boston is seeking to make progress in promoting aging equity are described in the report. More efforts are underway, as the city develops an action plan focusing on promoting financial security and equity among older Boston residents.
Age-friendly initiatives are natural facilitators for developing equitable aging environments, and Age-friendly Boston is redoubling efforts to prioritize aging equity in its work. As part of its first round action plan, Boston’s commission on aging was rebranded as the Age Strong Commission, meant to highlight the strength and vitality embedded in Boston’s older population.
By ensuring that access to services, programs and supports promote health and well-being on an equitable basis, Age-friendly Boston is expanding its work to promote an environment in which “aging strong” is possible for all Boston residents.
Jan Mutchler, PhD, is a professor and director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging and Caitlin Coyle, PhD, is an adjunct assistant professor and research fellow at the Center. Both are from the department of Gerontology and Gerontology Institute at University of Massachusetts Boston.
The report upon which this blog is based was prepared by the authors with University of Massachusetts collaborators Nidya Velasco Roldán, MS, Gerontology Department; Paul Watanabe, PhD, Institute for Asian American Studies; Cedric Woods, PhD, Institute for New England Native American Studies; Lorna Rivera, PhD, Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy; Quito Swan, PhD, William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture; Elena Stone, PhD, CANALA Institutes; and Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson, PhD, Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy.