Irene Morey begins each day with tai chi — arms flowing while gentle acoustic music plays from her television. Morey celebrated her 104th birthday with friends Saturday.
“I have good genes. My great grandmother was 105. My sister turned 102 last week,” Morey said. “And that's that's a gift.”
Morey knows many seniors aren’t as fortunate as she is; she lives alone and has a pension from 30 years as a nurse. She’s one of the faces of Boston’s “Age Strong”multimedia campaign — unveiled late last year. It aims to challenge stereotypes about the elderly and fight ageism. Morey thinks raising the profile of seniors can also deepen support for expanding senior programs.
“You can't feel compassion if you don't relate to a person," Morey said. "You can’t."
Seniors are one of the fastest growing populations in Massachusetts. Within 15 years, older adults are expected to make up nearly a quarter of the population. And in a state with a sky-high cost of living, seniors face a sobering challenge: trying to make ends meet.
According to a recent study by the Gerontology Institute of UMass Boston, more than 60% of Massachusetts seniors living alone are considered economically insecure — meaning they don’t have enough money to cover basic necessities such as food, housing and health care without public assistance. It's the highest percentage in the country.
Housing and healthcare are major factors.
“People are captivated by rankings, but realistically the issue is that economic insecurity is high everywhere,” said Jan Mutchler at the Gerontology Institute of UMass Boston.
Rosemary Williams, 70, spends her days caring for her great granddaughter, Riley. Even with government assistance, Williams said she struggles to pay her bills.
“The old saying goes, you know, that when you don't have enough, you're robbing Peter to pay Paul," Williams said. "So this month, if you can't pay this one, you pay that one and next month you pay that one and you don't pay that one."
Williams is diabetic and on Medicare, but didn’t have the money to cover the deductible for her monthly insulin.
“I eventually had to put it on the credit card, which was not my first choice,” she said. “But, you know, now at some point down the line, I'm going to have to pay that credit card back.”
Carolyn Villers, Executive Director of Mass Senior Action Council applauded the fight against ageism in “Age Strong.”
“I think that there's a lot of misperceptions of what it means to age and to be a senior," Villers said. "I think largely we give lip service to this idea that we value seniors and that we respect them.”
Still Villers said the greater focus needs to be on concrete challenges seniors face, including transportation and healthcare access.
“Far too often we hear from people who are choosing between picking up their prescriptions and going to the grocery store. It's important while we recognize seniors are strong and are very active,” Villers said. “We need to make sure that their voices are being heard in terms of what still needs to change.”
Williams joined the grassroots Mass Action Council, an organization where seniors take the lead on lobbying for change. But like Morey, she thinks changing attitudes about the elderly is part of the solution.
“I think that sometimes people look at seniors and think, ‘ugh,’” Williams said. “I think it's a value for everybody else is to begin to understand what seniors go through, and to let them know that the programs right now that they don't see as being viable are necessary, because as they begin to get older, these are some of the programs that they're going to have to rely on.”
From her vantage point more than three decades on, 104-year-old Morey has a similar prescription.
“It's being with people, and relating to them and know that we’re all in this race together,” she said.