Up in Aroostook County, volunteers grow fresh fruits and vegetables that feed northern Maine seniors all year long. Out on Swan’s Island, a one-person nonprofit provides essential home and health support services, at no charge, to older residents — year-rounders and summer folk alike. And in the Bath area, a group of can-do folks have teamed up with the local housing program to make free home weatherization and safety improvements for elders in their community.
All across the state, in fact, Mainers are rolling up their sleeves in support of aging friends, family members and neighbors. Volunteerism is nothing new, but as individuals and communities around the state search for ways to help a growing population of older residents thrive in their own homes, technology helps share the ideas that work.
“Our goal is to increase the collective impact of local aging-in-place initiatives,” Jessica Mauer, executive director of the Maine Association of Agencies on Aging, said. “It is important for individual volunteers and community groups to know they are not alone, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
In April 2015, Mauer met with colleagues in New Hampshire and Vermont to lay the groundwork for the Tri-State Learning Collaborative on Aging. The new organization maintains an online clearinghouse for exchanging information about volunteer-based programs that are keeping elders safe in their homes in each state.
Mauer said Maine, with its oldest-in-the-nation median age of 43.5, has been a leader among states in developing private, nonprofit programs to support seniors in their homes, especially those who are low-income and living in isolated rural areas. Vermont and New Hampshire more recently have turned their attention to the issue, she said.
The three northern New England states share more than geographic proximity. Vermont has the second-highest median age in the country, Mauer said, and New Hampshire the fourth. All three state populations are largely rural, white and low-income, too.
“We have more in common than not; we can learn a lot from each other,” Mauer said. “People are hungry to talk with each other.”
Already, the organization has hosted a series of free, online presentations, or webinars, highlighting similar issues and projects in the three states. The first, offered last August, featured a presentation by the Frameworks Institute on how to shape public perceptions of aging. Another reviewed community-based programs targeting food insecurity, including the Friends of Aroostook program based in Houlton and similar projects in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Other webinars have examined home-grown programs providing fuel assistance, including a group of “chainsaw-wielding octogenarians” called The Woodchucks based in the Boothbay area; local groups that organize and provide a variety of aging-in-place services, including the At Home Downeast program based on the Blue Hill peninsula; and home support programs similar to Elder Outreach of Swan’s Island, a mostly free, spin-off service of the island’s municipal health clinic. All these presentations are recorded and available, along with supporting documents, free of charge on the organization’s website.
The Tri-State Learning Collaborative on Aging aims to strengthen existing community-based programs, support the development of new ones, create opportunities for learning and partnerships and influence public policy to improve services for seniors. Mauer encourages individuals, groups, organizations and communities to contact her through the website to discuss challenges, explore solutions and share successes.
This spring, the learning collaborative will host the Tri-State Summit on Aging on April 1 at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord, New Hampshire. The event will focus on building age-friendly communities in northern New England and is appropriate for anyone interested in the issue, including individuals, community-based groups, nonprofit leaders, municipal planners and others.