NORTHPORT, Maine — For those who call Maine’s offshore island communities home, growing older can pose a lot of challenges, including isolation from family members and medical care.
But leaving the islands for costly mainland nursing homes may not be a great solution either, according to attendees of the Maine Seacoast Mission’s second annual Island Elder Care Conference held Monday and Tuesday at Point Lookout.
Just ask Cindy Thomas, a resident of the town of Islesford on Little Cranberry Island, who said that a “very dear friend” died after leaving the island to live in a nursing home.
“I don’t think people do well when they have to leave,” she said.
Thomas was among the 20 or so people from the state’s island communities who listened avidly Tuesday morning as a Camden doctor explained a way that aging islanders — and other Mainers — may be able to stay in their homes.
Dr. Ira Mandel runs the Midcoast Maine Affiliate of Full Circle America, a Damariscotta-based business specializing in virtual assisted living that he called a new model for elder care.
Subscribers pay a $400 monthly fee for the service. In exchange, they receive care and attention that includes daily check-ins from Full Circle America staff and volunteers. They also are monitored 24 hours a day by a webcam installed in their living space and motion detectors placed in private spaces such as bathrooms and bedrooms.
In addition to the safety component of the service, subscribers also receive human attention that includes planned activities, services such as assistance with food preparation and arrangement of other needed help. Each member also is encouraged to be a program volunteer in order to get more purpose and value out of life, he said.
“Social contact is so important to our health and well-being. It’s why we exist,” Mandel said. “There’s more to life than just taking your medicines and focusing on fall risk reductions. We want to have a life. We want to interact with people. We want to have a reason to get up.”
As the population of the United States continues to age, and full-time caregivers or nursing home care continue to cost thousands of dollars per month, Full Circle America envisions serving as many as 10,000 communities over the next decade, Mandel said. He described the quickly aging population of the United States as a coming “gray tsunami.” By the year 2030, the country will have three times its current population of people who are older than 65 and five times the current population of people older than 85.
“We in this room, and most Americans, as we all age we don’t really see [nursing homes] as a desirable place to end up,” he said. “We’d rather stay in our own homes.”
But elderly people often need help to stay in their homes, which may not be practical or economically feasible. Mandel described the quality of life of older folks as being “chipped away” around the edges, as some may give up driving or otherwise become more isolated.
“They begin to acclimate to a less enriched life,” he said. “It’s very sad to see.”
That’s where Full Circle America comes in, he said.
So far, about 70 people have used the service, which was begun this spring by Damariscotta family physician Allan “Chip” Teel. Mandel said that he has had five subscribers for his affiliate since beginning in June, including a Rockland man who was the first to sign up after being diagnosed with cancer.
The day the Rockland man was set up with the cameras, his niece went to her Portland home and worried about her uncle, who lived alone. So she logged onto the website and began watching the video feed from his house.
“She saw him go into the kitchen, take his meds and head toward the bedroom,” Mandel said. “She thought, ‘Yes, this is going to work.’”
Although some people have privacy concerns, the doctor said that in most nursing homes, residents share a bedroom and bathroom with a total stranger.
“Would you rather do that or have a camera in your house that after a while you forget is there?” he asked.
While the islanders in the room had questions about how the service might be able to help their elderly residents, some of whom may not have access to speedy Internet, many said that Full Circle America sounded like a good tool.
“What we’re looking for is to provide more services for our older population that allows them to stay on the island,” said Brenda Clarke of Isle au Haut.
Careyleah MacLeod of Vinalhaven said that although her island has a medical center and an eight-bed facility for elderly islanders to live, there is a need for more help. That might include getting assistance for the small band of volunteers who help care for older islanders.
“There’s this incredibly solid sense of home,” she said. “They call it the rock, and the rock is their home. That’s where they want to live out their lives.”
For more information, visit www.fullcircleamerica.com.