May 23, 2018
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Support programs succeeding at keeping Maine seniors in their own homes

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

DEER ISLE, Maine — Marnie Reed Crowell was a healthy woman in her 60s when a fall while ice skating one Sunday afternoon changed both her life and her perspective on growing old in rural Maine.

The traumatic head injury she suffered left the Deer Isle resident and author unable to write, drive and perform many basic tasks. During her years-long recovery, Crowell said she realized the challenges faced by many older or disabled Mainers struggling to live independently.

“I had a church, I had 40 years of friendships, and I had a sibling a few miles awa, and it wasn’t enough,” Crowell said.

A decade later, Crowell is part of a nascent but growing movement in Maine – one of the nation’s oldest states demographically — focused on developing support systems that will enable seniors or disabled Mainers to stay in their homes, albeit with a little help.

For an annual fee of $100, participants in the Deer Isle Plus support network launched in Deer Isle and Stonington can receive access to an online network and a paid coordinator. Through that network and coordinator, participants can then find others in the community willing to help around the house, drive them to the store or simply stop by for a chat.

Participants also fill out a lengthy “care sheet” detailing whom the coordinator should contact to, say, feed their cats or take care of emergency home repairs should they be hospitalized. All of this, Crowell said, is an attempt to help people connect in an era where families disperse and federal privacy laws prevent first responders from alerting friends or neighbors to a medical emergency.

“I like this community. This is where I want to live,” Crowell said recently. “And not surprisingly, the people on this side of the [Deer Isle-Stonington] bridge are very independent and don’t want to move off island to a nursing home.”

Deer Isle Plus is one of several similar efforts under development in Maine. Their approach and structure may be different, with some providing more health care services for a higher fee while others, such as Deer Isle Plus, rely largely on volunteers.

But all of the programs have an identical goal.

“The Holy Grail was really, ‘How can we keep people in their own homes?’” said Dr. Allan Teel, a Damariscotta physician. “That is where people want to be, but the choices for keeping seniors in their own home are very limited.”

While Deer Isle Plus seeks to create a loose network, Teel is the force behind a nationwide endeavor — called Full Circle America — that provides highly individualized plans that address both seniors’ health care and social needs.

Participants can receive home visits by staff or volunteers as well as regular telephone or Web-based check-ins, transportation services, respite care, activity planning, emergency call buttons and around-the-clock monitoring by webcams or motion sensors. In return, participants stay active by volunteering in the community in any way they can.

Teel, author of the book “Alone and Invisible No More,” said Medicare and Medicaid offer little help for those aiming to stay in their homes, and nursing homes are prohibitively expensive.

The program costs between $400 and $700 a month. But since launching his program in Lincoln County, Teel’s organization has helped about 100 people ages 80 to 105 stay in their homes at roughly 10 percent of the cost of “residential care.”

Full Circle America now has participants in Knox County and Portland and is working to set up branches in 25 communities this year from Bangor to Florida and California. If successful, Teel said, he hopes to have participants in 500 communities by 2014.

“We are trying to build our senior care around a much more holistic model,” he said.

At Home Downeast, which operates in the Blue Hill peninsula, falls in between Deer Isle Plus and Full Circle America on the spectrum of support systems for senior citizens.

A program of Washington Hancock Community Agency, At Home Downeast provides four rides a month to medical appointments, weekly deliveries of groceries and prescription drugs and up to two home visits a month by a licensed nurse.

The service costs between $2 and $20 a week and, like Deer Isle Plus, will rely on a cadre of volunteers as well as a local coordinator. Under development for two years, the program launched in February and aims to have 25 participants in each of the nine communities now being served. But organizers hope to expand in Hancock and Washington counties.

“I am seeing an increase in calls from either the children of older parents or the spouses of someone who has found themselves in a [difficult] situation already,” said Susan Farley with Washington Hancock Community Agency. “The need is huge. We do have an older population, and the time to think about this is before something happens.”

Joe Perkins, development director at Washington Hancock Community Agency, said he is aware of the other programs under development — including Deer Isle Plus — and that he welcomes them because of the need.

“If someone in Ellsworth were to try to start a program like this, we would encourage it,” Perkins said. “We are trying to create a model.”

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