With $2.5 million in federal funding, Maine will launch a new pilot program to help older adults live well in the communities they call home.
The Community Connections program aims to do more to connect residents with crucial services like food, transportation, social opportunities and insurance assistance.
More than a quarter of Maine’s population is 65 and older, according to U.S. Census data. Many older adults lack social interaction, which can lead to loneliness, hunger or even unchecked medical issues, aging experts said.
“Social isolation and loneliness are huge problems that really need to be addressed, and I think this could help with that,” said Elizabeth Gattine, coordinator of Maine’s Cabinet on Aging. “I think a big part of this is to promote inclusion in the community.”
The pilot program is funded by American Rescue Plan Act funds. It will create community ambassador positions at Maine’s area agencies on aging, making it easier for those in need to get help.
Simply put, Community Connections will be the glue that binds together work already being done by organizations and communities across the state, Gattine said. Work is expected to start by next month.
The project will include volunteer training and technical assistance to help people access services, and will set up pilot communities to identify people who need help but aren’t getting it. It may also provide some grant funding, but details aren’t finalized, Gattine said.
To administer program funds, the cabinet will work with the University of Maine Center on Aging, the agencies on aging and Age Friendly Communities, of which the state has more than 100.
The Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Initiative was started in 2007 by the World Health Organization to help ensure older adults have access to food, household help, social interaction, transportation, inclusion and respect, according to the National Institutes of Health. Maine became an age-friendly state in 2019.
“We know that one of the things that is most valued in Maine is our sense of community and neighbor helping neighbor,” Gattine said. “What we want to do is empower these communities and support them in this work of reaching people that otherwise would be very difficult for us to reach and bring support to.”
Maine has five area agencies on aging: Aroostook, based in Presque Isle; Eastern Maine in Brewer; Spectrum Generations in Augusta; SeniorsPlus in Lewiston and Southern Maine Agency on Aging in Biddeford.
All are nonprofit organizations that receive a mix of state, federal and local funding, said Joy Barresi Saucier, executive director of the Aroostook Agency on Aging. The funding formulas vary based on each agency’s size and number of people served; Aroostook is the smallest and Southern Maine is the largest, she said.
Many funds are earmarked for specific programs, and agencies have to match federal dollars through fundraising or donations.
Aroostook Agency on Aging’s budget included $4.57 million in expenses and $4.34 million in revenue in fiscal year 2022, according to Charity Navigator, an online organization that monitors nonprofits. Southern Maine Agency on Aging’s budget included $4.86 million in expenses and $5.03 million in revenue in FY 2022.
The Aroostook Agency on Aging serves approximately 5,000 people per year, Barresi Saucier said. In 2023, the agency received $1.53 million in federal and state funding and $220,043 in donations.
“Maine is really leading the nation in the number of age-friendly communities we have,” she said. “We have a lot of strength in the area and this [new program] takes it to the next level.”
The new ambassador will increase referrals to services, and help communities attain age-friendly status, she said. Right now Aroostook has six age-friendly municipalities: Danforth, Houlton, Presque Isle, Caribou, Limestone and Fort Kent.
The agency and other groups provide older residents with things like public meals, a community woodpile, salting in the winter and volunteer driver networks, Barresi Saucier said. The agency’s Access Points for Aging program is setting up spaces in 20 towns where people can find resources.
A lot of work is going on, but there are still people who need services, she said.
The Southern Maine agency covers a smaller, densely populated area, and serves about 26,000 people a year, said Executive Director Megan Walton.
In 2022, the last year for which data is available, the agency received $3.6 million in state and federal funding and $716,000 in donations, according to the agency’s Report to the Community.
“One of the things we hope to do with this project is work with the lifelong communities to identify people in their communities that really need more support, who haven’t really accessed the agency on aging and could benefit from our programs,” Walton said.
The greatest problems are social isolation and loneliness, which have the same health impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, Walton said.
The project could unlock thousands more people who need support, Walton said. That’s why agencies on aging support Maine’s LD 1684, An Act to Invest in the Health and Wellness of Older Maine Residents by Expanding Coordinated Community Programming. If passed, the law would expand their case management capacity, Walton said.
The Center for the Advancement of Rural Living in Caribou is one local group working to provide older adults with meals, housing and transportation. It operates the County Area Ride Service and Purple Ladle, a Limestone meal program, among other efforts.
“We need dollars and we need more volunteers,” said Sharon Berz, center volunteer and ride service manager. “And the service needs to grow even more, so we’ll need more drivers. Everybody struggles to get all the volunteers they can use.”
If the new state program can provide funding and more helping hands, it would be a great benefit, she said.
The ride share program started out in Caribou, but has expanded to nine Aroostook County towns. There are 20 volunteer drivers and more are needed.
The Purple Ladle meal service in Limestone normally serves 70 to 80 people each week. Right now, it’s temporarily halted due to lack of funds.
Whatever the state can provide will mesh with major goals of all who serve the older population: to reduce depression, missed medical appointments and food insecurity, Berz said.
Barresi Saucier sees the state’s new pilot program as a kind of hub to unite everyone trying to help older residents enjoy their best lives.
“We’re bringing all the resources we can to people no matter where they are,” she said. “We know that it takes the whole community rallying, oftentimes, to get the needs of people met.”