Policymakers, advocates for the state’s seniors, and seniors themselves have focused attention in recent years on helping seniors age at home where they can remain active and connected to their communities. While government grants and workshops are helpful in moving this work forward, many solutions aren’t complex or costly. That means they can be implemented locally and quickly.
The Bangor Daily News has spent six months researching and reporting on how to improve the quality of life of older Mainers. While we aren’t experts, we conducted an informal survey, and the results highlighted six common-sense changes that don’t require immense bureaucratic struggles to implement.
The most popular potential solution is to ensure that communities are organized in ways that support seniors. An extensive example of this thinking and planning is a program called At Home Downeast on the Blue Hill Peninsula. Under the 3-year-old program, area residents pay an annual fee for services including rides to medical appointments, grocery shopping or delivery, and small changes to their homes to make them safer. The interaction with volunteers can be as important as the services provided.
“It’s a lifesaver for people my age. … I feel I can talk to them and feel at home,” Margaret Staples of Brooklin told the BDN earlier this year. “Now I don’t feel alone.”
Locally developed solutions don’t have to be as extensive as this one. Weekly suppers organized by churches or community groups provide sustenance and companionship. Volunteer transportation networks, which are vital in a rural state such as Maine, provide links to stores, health care providers and friends.
In addition, those who participated in the survey supported more check-ins on seniors. Police departments and medical practices can do these on a formalized basis, but again, community members can help. Check-ins improve safety — sometimes even helping police anticipate emergencies — and provide social connections to seniors who may spend most of their time alone at home.
As a corollary, more senior housing is needed. Communities should ensure zoning restrictions don’t prevent construction of new senior housing units or needed modifications to homes occupied by older residents.
End-of-life planning was also a high priority for those who took the BDN survey. Although death is inevitable, more than a quarter of adults have given no thought to their end-of-life care, according to a recent report by the Institutes of Medicine, which offers a lengthy list of resources to begin such a conversation. Only about a quarter of adults have a documented plan for their end-of-life care, which addresses the type of care they want and who will make decisions for them if they are unable.
Medicare, the country’s medical insurance plan for seniors, proposed last month to reimburse doctors for end-of-life conversations with their patients, a move long supported by Sen. Susan Collins.
Better training for staff at financial institutions to spot exploitation of elders and helping employers better accommodate older workers rounded out the survey results.
As the oldest state in the nation, Maine has many challenges ahead. But the simple and local acts highlighted in the survey don’t require a lot of time, money and bureaucracy to make a big difference in the lives of our senior residents. Commitment and creativity are all that’s needed.