Boston's population of people aged 60 and older is growing, and more than half of that population is made up of people of color. A new study from UMass Boston shows that there are serious racial and ethnic inequities when it comes to quality of life for Boston's older minority residents. One of the study's co-authors is Dr. Jan Mutchler, director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at UMass Boston. Mutchler spoke with GBH's Mark Herz. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Mark Herz: The pandemic has really put a bright light on racial and ethnic disparities in health. And unfortunately, that's because it's exacerbated those disparities. If you're 60 or older, I would imagine this is more of a concern. So tell us what you found in your study.

Dr. Jan Mutchler: Well, the study actually started before the pandemic. It really came together and shone a light on some of the issues that we were talking about. The report was meant to really look at how older people in Boston are aging, and what some of the disparities are in their opportunities to age well. There's a lot of attention in Boston and elsewhere in the country around how older people are doing in general. The population of older people is growing dramatically, and we wanted to really look specifically at the racial and ethnic disparities in quality of life for older people in Boston. So we collected a lot of data, we drew together a lot of demographic data and other sources, and really found that there is a cumulative impact of inequality that lands in later life.

Essentially, the kind of disparities that we see in later life don't just appear when people hit the age of 60 or 70. The disparities that we see are the result of long-term and systemic inequalities that accumulate over a lifetime. Those things shape people's health trajectories, and they also shape their accumulation of financial resources that would provide for a secure retirement. So our report really documents the results of those lifelong experiences that we are so aware of and of course that recent events over the last year or so have really highlighted.

Herz: So tell us about those results you documented. How do these inequities in the ability to age well play out in Boston?

Mutchler: We focused on three aspects of aging well, one related to health and disability. We found very big gaps in health and disability among Boston's older adults. In one example, we found that older African-American residents who are aged 50 to 59 have disability levels that are 26 percent, which is pretty high. It's a quarter of older African-Americans in their 50s having at least one disability. That's higher than the disability rate among white people in Boston who are in their 60s. So we have a gap there, even when you're looking at different age groups.

Herz: How big a gap is that?

Mutchler: So we saw 26 percent among African-Americans in their 50s and 19 percent among whites in their 60s. So again, what we're seeing is earlier onset of disability and health conditions among older African-Americans. Similar things happen in some of the other race groups as well. Another piece of the study focused on financial security issues. We saw much higher rates of poverty among older persons of color than their white counterparts. For example, more than a third of Asian-American and Latino residents age 60 and over are poor. If you've ever looked at poverty statistics, you know that the poverty line is just extraordinarily low for a person living alone. It's under $13,000 a year. We're talking about really low income.

Herz: Perhaps a ridiculously low bar.

Mutchler: Oh, absolutely, a ridiculously low bar. When you factor in the fact that cost of living is so high in Boston, cost of housing is so high in Boston, when you're talking about that very low level of income, you can really see the struggle that that produces.

Herz: You mentioned, kind of terribly, that the ground was laid for these disparities much earlier on in people's lives. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Mutchler: I'm glad you asked about that, because it really is a critically important piece of this story — that older people of color are disproportionately likely to be entering later life with a lot of health conditions already, with some disabling conditions already, with low income already. What we see in later life — and this is true no matter what aspect of aging you're looking at — but what we see in later life is we see people carrying the disparities that they've accumulated from infancy, from childhood, all the way into later life with them. Now, that's not to say that things are sort of set in stone at an early age, but rather the kinds of things that occur in a disproportionate way through racism, through discrimination, through systemic inequality, these are things that impact people at the moment and also impact them through their consequences all the way into later life.

Herz: Another thing we hear a lot about with aging is loneliness, a lack of social engagement for older people. That seems like just another thing that can only have been exacerbated by the pandemic, I would imagine. What did you find out there?

Mutchler: Oh, absolutely. Well, again, we didn't have a lot of data on that intersection of disparities and the pandemic and isolation and all of that. But I can say that the aging networks, people who work on older issues are very concerned about the isolation piece, very concerned about loneliness. A lot of times, cultural groups have some strengths. They have a lot of resilience around some of those issues, so it's really hard to say exactly how that all is playing out with respect to the race and ethnic groups in Boston. But I will say that embedded within those cultural groups are a lot of language issues, a lot of challenges to accessing information about where to find resources that could be helpful to them around everyday things, things that have always been a challenge for people, as well as COVID-related things. One of the strategies that's required - and the city is pursuing it, but it's important to just highlight it - is to make sure that information is put out in lots of different languages, lots of different media, and really distribute it in ways that our very diverse population can adequately access it.

Herz: You mentioned resiliency, and you mentioned that the city of Boston is doing some things that would maybe help. What more needs to be done, and who should be doing it? Or who is best positioned to be doing it?

Mutchler: A lot of our work in Boston is done in collaboration with the Age Strong Commission, which is the elder services office in the city of Boston, and they really are responsible for providing services and outreach to Boston's older population. They've been working on these issues for a long time, and they're doing it in partnership with a lot of other offices in the city, as well as community groups outside of the city network. I think they're doing a good job, and they need to do more. Everybody needs to do more. You mentioned the COVID issue, and it really has shone a light on things that we have known to be of great concern all along. It really just just highlights how important it is to address those issues.

Herz: You say the city's doing some things right, but they need to do more. If the Walsh administration called you in for a consultation, what's the one best thing they can get the most bang for the buck out of to really address some of these problems that your study turned up for older minorities in Boston? What's that one thing that you really think could start moving the needle?

Mutchler: Just choosing one isn't quite fair. There are some issues that are just very, very important across the board, and the one that always comes to mind is housing — the cost of housing, the availability of housing, opportunities to downsize. That affects everybody in Boston, and it especially affects older people, many of whom are persons of color, diverse populations.