Maybe you’re finally ready to learn a musical instrument, open a business or challenge your physical strength. Maybe you’re an employer looking to retain your best workers as they age, or a municipal planner trying to build an aging-in-place safety net for your older residents. For all Mainers interested in building a lively, interactive culture of aging, an upcoming event in Augusta offers a wealth of information, inspiration and resources.
From the top of the jam-packed daylong agenda to the the bottom, the overarching message of the Maine Wisdom Summit is consistent: it’s time to reconsider how we talk and think about aging.
“The whole day has been structured to tell a new story about growing older in Maine,” said Jessica Maurer, co-chair of the Maine Council on Aging, the multi-agency team that has organized the event.
“The Maine Wisdom Summit: Cultivating the Opportunities of our Age” will take place on Wednesday, September 20 at the Augusta Civic Center.
Julie Sweetland of the national nonprofit FrameWorks Institute will deliver the opening keynote and set the tone for the day’s events. FrameWorks collaborates with groups to build public and political will for change. Often that process begins with changing, or re-framing, the way we talk about issues.
“When we talk about ‘battling’ aging or ‘struggling against’ aging, or when we reach for the ‘anti-aging serum’ on the drugstore shelf, then we’re in a frame that says aging is a bad thing that needs to be resisted,” Sweetland said in a phone interview. “The truth is that living is a continuous process of change, with pros and cons at each stage.”
Words like “senior citizen” and “elderly” are associated with frailty, a lack of competence and an inability to do for one’s self, she said, when many older adults are in robust good health and fully capable of participating actively in life.
“Living longer confers many benefits,” she said, “including self-possession, self-direction, full relationships, a sense of accomplishment and acquired wisdom.”
Maine’s status as the state with the oldest median age — 44.2 in 2015 compared with a national median of 37.7 — means Maine is already a leader in exploring age-friendly policies and practices aimed at keeping older residents engaged in their communities, active in the workforce and safe in their own homes, Sweetland said. “I’m excited to be coming to Maine. The aging advocacy team there is thoughtful and well-established, and ahead of the curve nationally in thinking about how to make this change a beneficial one for the state.”
On a light note, musicians Lynne and Rick Gammon of Portland will lead a two-part workshop called “Creating and Connecting through Music.” Participants will learn the basic chords needed to play a number of tunes on the four-string ukulele and then participate in a group jam session.
Learning a new skill later in life can be a challenge, Rick Gammon, 59, said. But compared to piano, guitar or other instruments, “the uke is fairly simple.” And learning the basics of musical notation, timing and chord structures can develop confidence for tackling a more challenging instrument, he said. “I had no musical background at all, but now I can play the uke and I’m thinking about trying another instrument.”
For Lynne Gammon, also 59, the benefit is largely social. The couple has joined a local ukulele group and also leads a monthly ukulele jam session at a neighborhood bar. She enjoys meeting new friends and sharing tips for better playing. “You don’t have to be an expert, just play at the beginner level for fun,” she said. But some enthusiastic, newly-minted uke players, she added, have spread the joy even further and started up groups in their own communities.
Attendees who stay for the whole day will have a special treat — the event will wind up with a talk by Pat Gallant-Charette, the youthful grandmother of three from Westbrook who recently became the oldest woman to swim across the English Channel.
“Being 66, I’m not the fastest swimmer out there,” she said in a phone conversation this week. But that hasn’t kept her from putting her passion for open water swimming to the test this year. In addition to her 34-mile triumph in the English Channel, she earlier this year became the oldest woman to swim the 26-mile crossing between the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Oahu. And just last week she completed the 32-mile Lake Ontario crossing from Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario to the provincial capital of Toronto, becoming the oldest person to make that solo crossing.
Gallant-Charette, retired from a career in nursing, didn’t become an open-water distance swimmer until her mid-40s. After she started training in earnest, she said, she realized she was getting stronger, fitter and more healthy than she had ever been in her life.
“I remember years back thinking that once you hit 39, it’s all downhill,” she said, an idea that now seems ludicrous.
“My message at the summit will be that it is never too late to start something new,” she said. “It may bring you down a road you never expected. Also, don’t place time constraints on your dreams. When I was I was so busy working as a nurse and raising a family, I didn’t even have any dreams, because I was too busy.”
Organizer Jessica Maurer said there are many reasons to celebrate growing older in Maine, not the least of which is the social and economic contributions older Mainers can make. “We’ve got a lot of older, healthy people here with a lot of talent,” she said. “We’ve got a whole lot left to live.”
Those who attend the summit may learn how to open a new business or channel their energy for volunteering. One workshop will focus on ways employers can attract and retain older workers who want to stay in the workforce but need more flexibility to accommodate other interests or changes in stamina.
“Employers are used to saying ‘It’s my way or the highway, be here at 7, you have to work every other weekend, no you can’t take three weeks off unpaid.’ None of that is going to work any more,” she said. “Employers can have access to experienced, dedicated, innovative employees who say ‘I’ll work for you 11 months out of the year, but in July, I’m sailing.’”