U.S. Sen. Susan Collins says her book tastes skew toward murder mysteries. She also counts Maine author and Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo as a favorite, especially his seminal novel “Empire Falls,” set in a fictional Maine mill town.
Yet the book now capturing her attention differs from these preferences: It’s “Being Mortal,” by physician and writer Atul Gawande. The book asks provocative questions about aging, maintaining independence, wellness and, yes, thinking about death.
These issues increasingly are at Collins’ forefront as Maine’s senior senator. She not only represents the state with one of the oldest populations, but she leads the venerable U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, which was established in 1961.
At 63, she’s also a bonafide member of the baby boomer generation and part of the broad swath of Mainers whom the issues raised by policymakers, politicians and writers such as Gawande are bound to interest — and affect.
At home in Bangor one recent morning, before driving to a meeting in Augusta with the Maine Association of Retirees, Collins poured mugs of hot coffee and tea and sat at the kitchen table to talk with the Bangor Daily News about the issues facing an aging America and her aging fellow Mainers.
Along the way, she provided a few glimpses into her personal life and the ways in which growing older is affecting her and her family.
A native of Aroostook County with a house in Bangor and a summer cottage at Cold Stream Pond in Enfield, Collins and her husband, business consultant Thomas Daffron, spend most weekends in the Pine Tree State. Collins’ parents, Pat and Don, still live in their own home in Caribou, with daily support from her brothers, Sam and Gregg, who also run the family building supply business. A third brother, Michael, lives in southern Maine.
Collins also has two sisters, Kitty and Nancy, who live out of state.
First elected in 1996, Collins has easily won re-election to three additional terms, most recently in 2014. Collins has sat on the Special Committee on Aging since 1997, taking over as chairman last January, with co-leadership from Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri.
“I sought the committee position and to become its chair for two reasons,” she says. “One is that Maine has the highest median age in the nation of any state. Second, I felt that, given the changing demographics of Maine and the nation … issues affecting our seniors were not getting the attention they deserved.”
Collins says the committee in previous years has at times been “sleepy” in its approach to issues affecting the country’s seniors.
“In all of the years I have been on the committee, I do not remember it ever being as aggressive as the committee is now under my and Claire’s leadership,” she says. “We hold more hearings. We tackle more issues. We have a clear agenda guiding our work that I have set forth. And I think that has made us more productive and more influential.”
There are five priority areas for the committee’s work: improving retirement security, building support for family caregivers, increasing funding for research into Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related disorders, protecting seniors against financial exploitation and fraud, and investigating recent aggressive price increases for prescription drugs.
All are particularly resonant here, given the state’s demographics. A 2012 estimate of the U.S. Census Bureau assigned Maine the highest median age of all the states: 43.5 years compared to the national median age of 37.4. More than one-fifth of Mainers are over 60, and by 2030 it’s estimated one-quarter will be 65 or older.
For Collins, the financial security of Americans and Mainers nearing retirement is a top consideration. Nationally, she says, one in four retirees has no other source of income than Social Security, but in Maine that figure is one in three. “The average Social Security benefit is only $16,000 a year,” she says. “It clearly makes [retirees] extremely vulnerable. I see this as a tsunami coming at us.”
There’s no quick fix. “People are going to work longer, out of both preference and necessity,” she says. Acknowledging that age-appropriate employment opportunities for seniors are limited, Collins suggested more baby boomers may start small businesses and that local businesses, such as the Dexter-based Erda handbag company, could provide jobs for older workers.
In the longer term, Collins supports raising the minimum Social Security benefit and encouraging Americans to wait until age 70 to start collecting, so their monthly benefit is maximized. In addition, she has introduced legislation with committee member Bill Nelson, D-Florida, to make it easier for small businesses to offer retirement plans for their workers.
Another front-burner issue is the plight of family caregivers, whose work is often essential to keeping elderly Americans out of institutional care.
With cosponsor Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, Collins has introduced legislation — called the RAISE Act — that would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a national strategy for supporting family caregivers.
Collins says a priority should be to establish respite care centers in rural areas.
“It is extremely difficult in rural Maine to find respite care,” Collins says. “Portland and Bangor have respite care facilities, but if you’re in rural Piscataquis County, or rural Aroostook County … it is really difficult to find daily adult care. You can pay for someone to come into your home, but there aren’t places where you take your loved one and have a six-hour break.”
Collins also has focused the committee’s attention on funding for biomedical research into disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which will affect an estimated 7.1 million Americans over 65 by 2025, 40 percent more than today, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
A funding bill signed in December includes $936 million for Alzheimer’s research funded by the National Institutes of Health, an increase of $350 million over previous levels. “And we have a five-year plan to get it to $2 billion,” Collins says.
Financial abuse and fraud against seniors is another priority. Pending legislation from Collins and McCaskill would encourage financial institutions to train employees to detect and report fraud against seniors.
And most recently, in December, the aging committee launched an investigation into dramatic increases in the price of certain off-patent drugs. While the investigation is still early, it’s hoped to lead to reforms at the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Seeking balance in life
Though a senator’s schedule is challenging, like most couples, Collins and Daffron seek balance in their personal and professional lives. Their 2012 marriage “has enriched my life immeasurably,” she says. “It is wonderful to have someone you love, who loves you as your companion for the rest of your life.”
Most weeks, they spend Thursday through Sunday in Bangor. “I tend to work all the time, so I made a real effort last week to work less so we could spend more time together, whether it was shoveling snow or watching ‘Foyle’s War,’ which someone gave us for Christmas,” she says.
If she had more leisure time, Collins says she’d like to cook more, especially foreign cuisines, and spend more time kayaking and relaxing at the camp on Cold Stream Pond. Daffron shares her appreciation of the lakeside cottage.
“If he had his way, we would move up there for the entire summer,” she says. “He’s still working … but he would love to work part time from up here.”
As for her own health, Collins says she is fortunate to have few concerns. “I am in good health,” she says. “I exercise but not as much as I should. I do an awful lot of walking; I’m always walking back and forth from the Capitol, usually very rapidly.”
She makes use of the Senate gym — “We have to pay for it; I want to be very clear about that,” she says — and a personal trainer. “In Bangor, I go to a local fitness center, as does my husband. So if I’m lucky, I get to go twice a week, once in Washington and once in Bangor.”
She lifts weights to build strength and stave off osteoporosis, and she works on improving her balance. Collins has a lingering injury — a broken ankle stemming from a slip last year in a local grocery store aisle.
“I’ve done a lot of physical therapy, and I am strongly resisting having surgery to remove this piece of bone,” she says. Sometimes she wears an elastic brace for support.
The spacious home she purchased three years ago in one of Bangor’s historic neighborhoods did come equipped with a motorized chair lift on the back staircase, so she has been able to give the ankle a rest when it acts up. “I never anticipated I would need to use it at the age of 62,” Collins says with a laugh.
Speculation remains rampant, too, that Collins plans to run on that tender ankle — for governor of Maine. She made an unsuccessful bid for the Blaine House in 1994 and observers believe she’s well positioned to try again. But for now she brushes aside these “rumors” and says she is focused on her work in the Senate.
As for what will come next, however, Collins did not rule anything out.
“I have no idea how this rumor emerged, but it didn’t come from me,” she says, smiling. “I’ve learned to never eliminate any possibility, because you never know what’s going to happen in life.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of Sen. Collins’ brothers; his name is Michael, not Tom. It also omitted the names of her sisters, Nancy and Kitty. And it incorrectly stated that she is the co-chair of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging; she is the committee chairman.