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Study Surveys Seniors Across City

Students Discover Independence, Diversity in Aging

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Seniors Count interview teams included senior volunteers and UMass Lowell students.

By Sandra Seitz

Lowell Seniors Count, a recently completed survey study of elders in the city, finds that Lowell seniors, as a whole, are doing well.

Over the three-year grant period, more than 200 trained volunteers visited seniors (age 60 and above) in every neighborhood in Lowell, knocking on 13,000 doors, delivering 6,500 resource bags and administering 1,900 surveys.

“The purpose of this project was to see how Lowell seniors are doing, what their lives are like, what is going well and what they need,” says project director Andrew Hostetler, associate professor of psychology, who worked closely with community partner Lowell Senior Center. The study was funded by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Massachusetts Partnership for Healthy Communities. 

UMass Lowell undergraduate and graduate students who participated learned professional survey and research skills. They also gained a new appreciation for seniors, as each student was paired with an elder volunteer from the Senior Center.

Ianna Hondros-McCarthy, graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies, participated in the Seniors Count study as an undergraduate psychology major.
“Interviewing senior citizens instilled in me a deeper appreciation for the people of this city and the varied, sometimes harrowing experiences that have shaped their lives,” she says. “The study also gave me an insight into how important networking is in research.” 

Most Seniors Doing Well

Among the seniors who participated in the study, 69 percent reported being in excellent, very good or good health. A majority of respondents reported no health limitations in their daily activities, while 41 percent have difficulty climbing stairs and 30 percent experience difficulties with housekeeping. Among the chronic conditions reported, 65 percent have high blood pressure and 59 percent have arthritis (the two most common conditions). Almost 30 percent are diabetics, over a quarter have dealt with heart conditions and 20 percent have had cancer. 

The seniors interviewed also report generally high levels of psychological well-being: about 88 percent rate themselves happy, while 90 percent are satisfied with their lives overall. 

Most of the seniors also feel physically and economically secure. Ninety-eight percent of respondents have health-care coverage. More than 93 percent never have trouble paying their rent or mortgage, 88 percent never have trouble paying their other bills and 74 percent of home owners have paid off their mortgages. Food security is high and most people report feeling safe in their neighborhood.
Reaching Those in Need

“The great majority of Lowell-area seniors are doing quite well,” says Hostetler. “Even such positive numbers, though, leave 10 to 15 percent of local seniors who struggle with economic difficulties, loneliness and other problems. We found that many seniors are fairly isolated, living in hard-to-maintain houses, where transportation is difficult. Unfortunately, our culture rates living on your own as a major criterion of aging well.” 

Researchers also had difficulty reaching every sub-group of the population.

“Our study sample had fewer respondents among immigrant groups and people of color than there are in the Lowell population,” says Hostetler. “It’s possible that our findings may provide an overly optimistic picture of senior life in Lowell.” 

He recommends outreach to underserved seniors, who may need information and access to services.

Lowell Seniors Count is just one step in finding ways to promote vitality for aging seniors. Hostetler and Robin Toof, as co-directors of the Center for Family, Work and Community, have received a new research grant for “Remaking Senior Centers for Diverse Populations” from the Borchard Foundation Center on Law and Aging.

“All the senior centers in the Merrimack Valley have great tracking data on use and activity,” says Hostetler. “They are in position to do meaningful developmental work on vitality in aging and outreach.”