Project Aims to Improve Quality of Life for Residents

Lawrence age-friendly project team
Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel, left, is partnering with Vilma Martinez-Dominguez, director of community development for the city of Lawrence, Lesly Melendez, deputy director of Groundwork Lawrence, and Martha Velez, executive director of the Lawrence Senior Center.

By Karen Angelo

University researchers are collaborating with Lawrence to turn the city into an “Age-Friendly Community” – a place where housing, transportation, green spaces, health care and social services help residents of all ages lead healthier lives. 

The city of Lawrence recently received a $199,813 grant from Tufts Health Plan Foundation to support health and high-quality aging among residents. It will help Lawrence plan for improving infrastructure, services and other amenities to make the community a great place to grow up and grow old. 

Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel of the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences, who began working with the city of Lawrence five years ago on dietary quality and bone health among aging residents, will collect and analyze data for the project. 

Gathering Feedback from More than 8,000 People 

To gather feedback from the community, Noel is collaborating with Groundwork Lawrence, the Mayor’s Health Task Force and the Council on Aging. 

“This is a large and exciting project that highlights the strengths of our community-academic partnership,” says Noel. “The assessment involves talking with more than 8,000 people in the community. We have plans to speak to youth, elders, administrators, other stakeholders and public and private service providers in the city.” 

The project team will assess the city’s strengths and identify gaps within policies, programs and infrastructure. They will gather feedback from the community by conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys and forums. 

The initiative is part of the World Health Organization’s Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities, which launched in 2010. Areas of focus are based on the World Health Organization’s eight livability domains, which include transportation, outdoor spaces, housing, health services, safety and more. The domains have been adapted to meet the unique needs and culture of the city of Lawrence. After gathering data, the project team will develop an action plan to achieve their goals for each domain. 

Executive Director Martha Velez of the Lawrence Senior Center says that the combination of community voices and research are ideal for creating successful action plans. 

“Together, we are able to address the core needs of the community with the research that is being done,” says Velez. “Even though we’re out there every day talking to our residents, the Mayor’s Health Task Force and Groundwork Lawrence, we need concrete data to support our goal of becoming an age-friendly community.” 

She adds that working as a team and building on the city’s diverse culture are important to the success of the project. 

“Lawrence is a city with a lot of challenges, but it’s also a city with great assets,” she says. “We have a spirit of activism and collaboration, and that’s what makes it easier to get things done.” 

Earning the Respect of Peers and Older Adults 

The university began working with the city of Lawrence on public health issues in 2013, when Noel began investigating the high rates of osteoporosis among the city’s Puerto Rican adult residents. 

She met with Velez and Vilma Martínez-Dominguez, Lawrence’s community development director, to discuss potential strategies to address the public health problem. The team received funding from the National Institutes of Health to examine dietary quality in relation to osteoporosis and develop interventions to improve bone health among Caribbean Latino adults. 

On a second project, Noel is working in collaboration with Asst. Prof. Kelsey Mangano to examine food intake patterns, inflammation and the bacteria that live in the gastrointestinal tract, known as the gut microbiome. 

Elecia Miller, project officer serving on the Lawrence Mayor’s Health Task Force, says that UMass Lowell researchers provide much-needed knowledge so that the city can make appropriate decisions that will help improve the quality of life for its residents. 

“UMass Lowell has been working in the community for the last five years and has earned their stripes as a partner and the respect of our peers and older population,” says Miller. 

For Noel, seeing the impact on community health is gratifying. 

“The success of the relationship with my partners in the city of Lawrence lies in mutual trust and respect,” she says. “I am dedicated to the important work that we are accomplishing in this community.”