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New Project Explores Healthy Aging in the Lowell Community

5 circles connected with dots with elderly people pictured in them

03/19/2021
Merrimack Valley Magazine
By Lily Hartman

Lowell is known for its vibrant cultural diversity and strong sense of regional identity. Adults 60 years of age or older make up 15% of the city’s population — according to a Tufts Health Plan Foundation (THPF) 2019 report — and they bring a unique perspective and lived experience to the community. This makes them an important asset, according to Phillip Gonzalez, the senior program officer for the THPF. 

“We often think about older adults only in their deficits,” Gonzalez says. “If we default to that type of thinking, we overlook the fact that they lived in these communities, and contributed to these communities, for much of their lives.” 

A community-based effort that aims to develop healthy aging solutions has been in progress for over two years in Lowell. This has led to an Age-Friendly Lowell collaboration among UMass Lowell and community partners including the Greater Lowell Health Alliance, the Lowell Housing Authority, Elder Services of Merrimack Valley, D’Youville Life and Wellness, and the Lowell Council on Aging.

With support from the THPF, which funded a $300,000 grant for the project, these local collaborators can develop the tools they need to determine the infrastructure that’s required to promote this healthy-aging initiative.

Age-Friendly Lowell will involve the city’s entire community, including older adults, elected officials, the heads of nonprofits, volunteers, and other organization leaders, along with a diverse and older action group of residents that can shine light on specific issues within each unique community in the city, according to Lillian Hartman (no relation to the author), director of the Lowell Council on Aging.

“We are hoping to ensure that every element of our project has the voice of older residents, and who live and work within the community,” says project leader Sabrina Noel, an assistant professor in UMass Lowell’s Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences and the director of community engagement in the university’s Center for Population Health.

Local residents who volunteer will be directly involved with a unique element of the project, which is to research and develop the plan for promoting healthy and productive aging. These volunteers will be involved in collecting information from local residents in order to evaluate the community and determine what is already being done in the city to promote healthy aging, and which existing programs, policies, and systems need to be modified. 

Age-Friendly Lowell will focus on nine different domains, including housing, healthy living communication, transportation, employment, crime and safety, and health services, according to Noel and David Cornell, an assistant professor of physical therapy and kinesiology at UMass Lowell. By identifying priority areas within these domains, informed by older adults living in the community, an action plan can be developed to begin addressing strategies such as access to healthy food, places to walk, social engagement opportunities and more to promote healthy and productive aging. 

“As we all age, we want to be able to stay in our communities, and feel supported by our communities, and have the resources we need to be able to age in place,” Noel says.

Gonzalez emphasizes how everyone involved in this project should recognize the importance of older adults. Residents of Lowell who have lived in the community for a long time, often for most or all of their lives, bring a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to understanding what works and what doesn’t at the neighborhood level.

“What we should be thinking about is how we are investing in the infrastructure for ourselves in the future, and for older adults now,” Gonzalez says.