The things that seniors say they want and need to comfortably age in Maine are pretty simple: Safe housing, reliable transportation, connections with others in their community. So, a series of conversations across Maine, led by former House Speaker Mark Eves, and the report that resulted do not break new ground or reveal novel solutions.
They are important, however, because they show that improving the lives of Maine’s seniors does not require new government programs or a lot of money. Instead, sustained attention and a focus on what works can make a big difference.
So, it is encouraging that the Legislature’s Caucus on Aging will continue the advocacy and problem-solving necessary to address the needs of Maine seniors. This is a critically important issue because Maine is the most rapidly aging state in the country. In addition, more than 60 percent of Maine’s seniors live in rural areas, which increases the challenge of providing needed services to a dispersed population.
While lawmakers can set a supportive tone — and vote for needed state funding — much of the work is done at the local level. There are dozens of success stories that can be replicated in other communities. Small planning grants or other financial support from the state can help to make these efforts more effective and grow and spread to other communities.
In the Blue Hill area, for example, a group of volunteers provides a variety of services to seniors such as transportation to medical appointments, grocery and prescription delivery and home safety assessments. As important, At Home Downeast coordinates social gatherings for the more than 100 seniors who participate in the program. Visits from volunteers also provide needed social contact for the seniors, many of whom are homebound. The program now has a branch on Mount Desert Island.
In Harpswell, a local woman with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was hospitalized, sometimes for weeks, with respiratory problems five times this year because her basement flooded, causing mold to grow. Volunteers with the Harpswell Aging At Home program sealed her basement floor and fixed the foundation so water no longer seeped in and made other repairs to her small home. With the mold problem eliminated, the resident has since avoided hospitalization, which greatly improved her life.
In Aroostook County, seniors who participate in the Friendly Caller Program call into the local dispatch center each day between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. to report that they are safe. If they fail to call, the dispatch center will call them and if they can’t be reached, an officer will be sent to check on them. The dispatchers usually chat with each senior for a few minutes each day.
Housing is one area where the Legislature can play a big role. Many seniors are unable or do not want to remain in their homes. Nearly 10,000 Maine senior households are currently on waiting lists for housing, according to a recent survey by the Maine Real Estate Managers Association. That’s an increase of nearly 1,000 since last year’s survey.
The state’s senior housing inventory, meanwhile, grew by only 39 new affordable apartments this year, in Gorham and Biddeford. A 47-unit development in a former schoolhouse in Augusta is expected to open soon soon.
But at this rate, seniors awaiting safe and affordable housing will wait for years — often in unsafe, unmanageable housing where they are constantly at risk of falling or becoming sick.
This was supposed to remedied when voters, last year, approved a $15 million bond to build new housing and help seniors modify their homes. Despite voter approval, Gov. Paul LePage has refused to sign off on the bonds.
Lawmakers should again pursue ways to overcome the governor’s refusal to act so that much-needed senior housing can be built, especially in small communities.
Improving the lives of Maine seniors should remain a priority for lawmakers, even if most of the solutions don’t come from Augusta. Rather, the Legislature can step up and help connect community efforts and serve as a clearinghouse and cheerleader for the best ideas.