There’s no place like home, especially as you grow older.
Figuring out how best to support the increasing number of retiring baby boomers, so they can remain in their homes and communities as long as they wish, however, is a big question without one clear answer.
Aging has recently been the subject of round table discussions initiated by state legislative leaders; and AARP released a report in September on how to create an “age friendly” Maine. Not only do people simply prefer to stay at home as long as possible, it’s better for their quality of life and health — and less expensive for taxpayers — than long-term care.
Here are some positive local initiatives that could be expanded, replicated or reimagined in other towns:
— In Knox and Waldo counties, the nonprofit SAIL Midcoast — for an annual fee — offers seniors transportation, shopping, electronics help, yard work and personal care. It’s an alternative to assisted living, or living with family, that allows seniors to remain in their homes. It’s part of the Village to Village Network; other “villages” are being developed in Maine.
— Friends of Aroostook County provides fresh produce and firewood to seniors in need and individuals with low incomes.
— Saco is developing a long-term strategy for how best to respond to the needs of aging residents. The comprehensive approach is examining transportation for the elderly, how to maintain social activities and how to ensure access to health care. Bowdoinham underwent a planning process that resulted in a senior center that provides lunch and social activities — and a van to pick up residents to bring them to the center.
— Bath and several other communities have programs where older adults living independently can call the police department each morning to let someone know they’re safe; if they don’t call, and someone can’t reach them, an officer goes out to check on them.
There are also initiatives in other states that Maine might emulate. Montpelier, Vt., for example, is building on the concept of time banking, only focusing on seniors. The goal is to involve the community at large by exchanging services and time to help elders age in place.
Other states have pursued home share programs, where elderly adults who have extra space in their home rent out part of their home to a tenant who has been screened and can complete chores or pay rent — or a combination of the two. The programs allow the elderly to remain at home and have their household needs met.
The AARP report proposes that Maine have a website that pulls together the work already being done across the state, to be a resource for other municipalities and groups planning how best to create age-friendly places. The idea is to connect Maine’s efforts and drive new ideas.
There is great need for such an approach. Both the country and Maine are seeing their populations grow older, but Maine is aging at a faster pace. By 2030, it’s estimated residents 65 and older will account for more than a quarter — 26 percent — of Maine’s population, and 20 percent nationwide. Meanwhile, Maine’s working-age population — those ages 25-64 — is projected to increase just 1 percent. Nationwide, it’s projected to grow 18.3 percent.
There’s no doubt Maine’s older population offers many benefits to the state. Retirees volunteer. They participate in municipal government. They often care for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, while parents work.
But any demographic shift of this magnitude will also pose significant challenges.
With few workers and a greater number of seniors, what will happen to Maine’s economy, especially when a robust one is needed to provide services for seniors? Because many older Mainers live in rural areas, how will they get to medical appointments in service centers? How will they stay active and involved?
Obviously municipalities must also focus on how to draw young people, but based on projected population trends it’s also clear they must prepare to become more aging-friendly. There are many examples to follow, and coming up with a broader strategy will require the time of community leaders, legislators and, especially, seniors themselves.