Families have always gone the extra mile to help their loved ones in times of need. In fact, by far, the vast majority of care provided to older adults continues to be offered by their spouses, siblings, adult children and other family members. Friends and neighbors represent important additional sources of aid that can be counted on as well. Our helping tradition very much defines who we are as Mainers. Maine families receive critical additional help from the trained staff at community health and human service agencies. Together, these sources of support have enabled our rapidly growing older adult population to more easily age and thrive in their own homes and neighborhoods safely and securely.
In spite of the enormous efforts of families, friends, neighbors and community programs, we are quickly arriving at a defining point in history when we will need to mobilize the next level of support if we want to ensure older adult well-being into the future. An inevitable scarcity of family caregivers of older adults lies ahead as birth rates remain low, divorce rates continue to rise, and too many young people leave the state in search of opportunity elsewhere. A scarce resource environment at the federal and state levels will inevitably put additional strain on existing community programs to fill the gap in serving older adults. And the lasting effects of the Great Recession have created additional financial hardship on the traditional network of elder caregiving support. The time has arrived for towns and communities, large and small, to mobilize existing resources and buttress the loyal but increasingly strained traditional sources of elder support.
There are promising signs. The Maine Health Access Foundation has funded a series of “Thriving in Place” initiatives around the state that aim to promote more collaborative and consolidated efforts at the local level to bring existing community resources and programs together that serve vulnerable populations, including older adults and people with disabilities. New models of offering services to older Mainers are beginning to emerge as well, such as At Home Downeast, which is part of the nationwide Village to Village Network, membership organizations offering a wide range of services that enable older adults to remain in their homes. The University of Maine has launched an aging research initiative that is focused on fast-track development of home-delivered technologies that are intended to maximize the safety and well-being of older adults in the community. And the Maine Summit on Aging has been established and is now an annual event that brings a statewide audience together to enact business, community and education initiatives that support older adults living and working in Maine.
These efforts, while laudable, are not enough and will not succeed by themselves in meeting the needs of the more than 230,000 Maine residents over the age of 65 who reside in the hundreds of towns and communities across our state. It is essential that these efforts be combined with the concerted efforts of Maine localities to become more age-friendly.
An age-friendly community is a city or community that makes it easy for older adults to stay connected to those they care about, remain healthy and active, and receive the support they need when help is needed. An age-friendly community makes deliberate decisions and commitments to ensure that the physical environment as well as the organizational infrastructure and constellation of available services are responsive to older adults. According to the World Health Organization, age-friendly communities promote health by being accessible, equitable, inclusive, safe, secure and supportive. A community that is responsive to older adults will also be responsive to the needs of individuals (and families) of all ages. AARP stands squarely behind the age-friendly community movement and even offers a toolkit to get started. Six towns in Maine are members of AARP’s network of age-friendly communities (Bethel, Bowdoinham, Ellsworth, Kennebunk, Paris and Portland).
Six is not enough!
The needs of older Mainers will never be adequately addressed until families, friends, neighbors, communities programs and communities join forces. In the meantime, the well-being of aging citizens in the oldest state in the nation hangs in the balance.
Lenard W. Kaye is professor of social work and director of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.