UMass Boston

UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute Turns Lens on COVID-19

07/14/2020| Elis Mullins

In the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately affected Massachusetts seniors, UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute is using its research to identify the state’s most vulnerable residents and advocate for better policy and assistance programs for older residents moving forward.

Gerontology Institute Director Len Fishman testifies via Zoom at a May 15 virtual listening session hosted by the legislature’s Joint Commit
Gerontology Institute Director Len Fishman testifies via Zoom at a May 15 virtual listening session hosted by the legislature.

Researchers are using data previously collected in their Massachusetts Healthy Aging Data Report and Elder Index, conducting surveys looking to discover and develop solutions for social isolation, and offering more online classes to older adult learners, all in an effort to support the Commonwealth’s senior population during this time of crisis.

Gerontology Institute researchers, led by Associate Professor of Gerontology Elizabeth Dugan, have applied their Massachusetts Healthy Aging Data Report to incidence of COVID-19 in the state. By analyzing 179 health indicators for Massachusetts’ older residents — including diabetes, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, and lung issues — researchers have identified areas across the state where older residents may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“To my knowledge, this is the most detailed analysis that that's been done on the physical and mental health of older people,” Gerontology Institute Director Len Fishman said. “This information...will give us more data to work with as we try to understand what the risk factors were for fatalities and other bad outcomes of COVID-19 in Massachusetts.”

The Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging, one of the Gerontology Institute’s four centers, produces the Elder Index, which tracks the income people 65 and over need to live at home while meeting the cost of their basic living expenses.

The Elder Index shows that older adults living independently in Massachusetts already face one of the nation’s highest rates of elder economic insecurity. Center director Jan Mutchler says seniors’ circumstances will become more difficult as the COVID-19 outbreak continues. She noted that about one in every four Massachusetts residents age 65 or older worked last year to make ends meet. The high unemployment rates that have struck during the pandemic pose particular problems for older adults.

“For them, employment disruption often ends up having permanent consequences,” she said. “In this downturn, with so many people competing for jobs, older workers may have an especially hard time. Additional job loss may occur because of health vulnerability.”

Many seniors are experiencing high levels of loneliness due to constant quarantine. The Gerontology Institute is currently conducting a survey with the Massachusetts Councils on Aging to see how each municipality is coping.

The Gerontology Institute’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), which offers courses, lectures, social events, local outings, and travel to people over 50, responded quickly to the pandemic, expanding its online learning opportunities to improve quality of quarantine life.

“There is ample evidence that people report greater satisfaction with their lives as they grow older, even taking into account increasing disabilities,” said Fishman. “And the people who participate in our lifelong learning program want to be intellectually challenged.”

Fishman, Mutchler, and Dugan also testified at the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs Hearing this spring. Fishman stressed the need for high-quality data from more nursing homes that would "transform our ability to manage the pandemic in nursing homes" and "save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives and avoid untold suffering."

The institute’s many areas of research work together to predict, battle, and better prepare for senior hardships, up to and including COVID-19 — and they’re not stopping now.

“It's exciting to be part of the program that is helping to do research and policy analysis and public service in this unprecedented world that we're entering,” Fishman said.

Read more about the Institute’s efforts at