Aroostook communities tout successes with ‘age-friendly’ programs
This story has been updated.
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With Aroostook County continuing to see an aging population, residents and community organizers are taking steps to improve quality of life and community engagement for their oldest citizens.
On Thursday, Aroostook Agency on Aging and the University of Maine Center on Aging hosted a virtual informational session on how Aroostook cities and towns can become part of AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities.
The global network includes 71 age-friendly communities in Maine total, and four in northern Maine — Presque Isle, Caribou, Limestone and Danforth — who have put together committees to create programs that could increase senior citizens’ access to transportation, social events, health care, wellness activities and other local resources.
“It’s about making sure people of all ages feel welcome and engaged and have their needs met,” said Patricia Oh, program manager for UMaine’s Center on Aging.
To become age friendly, a community must first form a committee consisting of health care leaders, elected officials, residents, Agency on Aging members or any organization whose work is tied to the well-being of seniors. After gaining approval for their municipality, the committee can then create an action plan that details short- and long-term goals.
Action plans largely depend on what each community finds to be the greatest needs for their older residents. For instance, in Caribou the age-friendly committee released a survey in 2018 in which 45 percent of the 350 respondents said that Caribou is a “good” place to live in as they age while 33.8 percent said the city is a “very good” place to age.
“When we asked about quality of life, we found that access to health care and staying in their own homes are some of the biggest concerns,” Elizabeth Singer, age friendly coordinator for Caribou, said.
The city’s committee began its age-friendly efforts by designing and creating “Age-Friendly Caribou” car stickers featuring a caribou inspired logo. They also distributed “Caribou Resources” magnets, which have contact information for social services, health care and other community organizations.
In partnership with the city’s public works department, volunteers have placed buckets of sand and salt outside the doors of older residents during winter. Singer noted that even a small act of kindness can open many doors for seniors, many of whom live alone and struggle to cross their slippery driveways in the winter.
“If people can leave their homes safely, they can have access to health care and be more socially active,” Singer said.
Caribou’s age-friendly program has grown to include senior-themed book displays at the library, activities such as gardening and bird watching with the Parks and Recreation department, the Senior Santa project and Tech Talks at the library, where seniors can receive assistance with using digital devices.
Cary Medical Center has also become a certified “Age-Friendly Health System” and holds support groups for dementia patients and grandparents raising grandchildren.
Presque Isle has focused its action plan on increasing access to and engagement with outdoor spaces, social participation in and transportation to community events.
Northern Light AR Gould Hospital’s Healthy Aging Network and the city’s historical society are partnering to host a Presque Isle Promenade, a walking tour of the city’s historic landmarks, on May 26 and 27.
The tour ends at the Vera Estey House on Third Street, where participants will enjoy a picnic lunch in the garden. The Historical Society is working to transform that garden into a “pocket park,” a small park with easy access to downtown businesses and neighboring homes.
The city hopes to increase senior participation in social events through a volunteer ride program that is still in development.
“If someone has no one to go to an event with, they could call a number and ask if they could share a ride and go with someone else,” said Kim Smith, a member of Presque Isle’s age-friendly committee, on the concept behind the ride program.
Since launching its age-friendly mission, Danforth volunteers have provided seniors rides to health care appointments, assistance with Zoom software and access to exercise classes and Meals on Wheels through Eastern Area Agency on Aging. A new Handy Helpers program will connect high school students with seniors who have requested help planting gardens.
Most recently, Danforth has acquired a former Methodist Church that they will preserve but also transform into a senior community center. Grant funding from the Maine Community Foundation will allow them to hire a center coordinator through AmeriCorps. The center will feature raised garden beds, a performing arts center and activity space.
With 53 percent of Danforth’s population age 50 and older, Town Manager Ardis Brown noted that age-friendly volunteerism has become one of the most vital ways to help residents have access to healthy living.
“Our Walking Club has become so successful that we have people who call the town office to ask, ‘Can someone pick me up so I can go walking today?'” Brown said.
To begin the process of becoming an age-friendly community, town officials can contact Oh at email@example.com or Aroostook Agency on Aging at 207-764-3396.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated Danforth was served by the Aroostook Agency on Aging. Because Danforth is in Washington County, it is in fact served by the Eastern Area Agency on Aging. In addition, the Danforth town manager’s name is Ardis Brown.