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Getting Creative About Getting Older

I’ll be the first to admit that I am in major denial about my own aging. However, recently my brother-in-law died and two younger cousins have died within the past couple years. Suddenly, I’m facing the fact that I’m no longer the “younger generation.” I’ve now ascended the ladder to the generation that is starting to retire, embarking on a new stage of life, feeling new aches and pains as part of daily life and for too many of us, dealing with chronic health conditions or even death. I am only a few months away from the age at which my father died.

This new recognition of my life stage makes the MeHAF Thriving in Place initiative very personal for me. By the time I need a little additional help, I want a new system of care available that will give me the option to stay safe and healthy for as long as possible in my own lakeside home, talking to my loons. From the energy I’m seeing around our state on the topic of providing support so people can age in place, I realize I’m not the only Baby Boomer thinking about a better system.

As part of the exploration of community-based innovations, MeHAF has launched our new Thriving in Place initiative to mobilize communities to develop strategies that will use local resources to create a system of support to help people with chronic health conditions, including persons with disabilities and persons with extended life experiences. (Notice how I’m finding new ways to describe my new stage of life?)  When we announced the initiative, so many people began sharing with me their own stories about how this issue impacts their lives. Reporters who call for information about the eight communities who received our grant invariably tell me their own story about trying to balance work and caring for an elderly parent. Communities send me their successful ideas, such as having elderly people call the police station to check in each morning. If the dispatcher doesn’t hear from someone signed up for the program, a police officer is sent out to make certain s/he is OK.  It seems everyone has a story about someone special who is aging or about how much the community relies on the gifts and talents of these aging persons who still find ways to contribute to the community.

One very exciting development in brainstorming solutions was the Speaker’s Roundtable on Aging this fall. Speaker of the House Mark Eves and the Council on Aging brought together an extraordinarily diverse group of professionals and community members to learn more about the unique opportunities and issues of aging in Maine, which has the oldest median age in the nation. Bankers, town planners, citizens, funders, universities and colleges, public utility advocates, health care systems, public safety, legislators, and small and large businesses were among the many groups sitting at the table in a “fishbowl” fashion for the four meetings. Providers and other experts in the field of aging services sat around the perimeter of the room to witness as we learned more from each other and from the guest speakers about Maine’s opportunities to be a leader in this field. Throughout the discussions, the emphasis was on the tremendous asset retirees and aging residents are to a community.

Speakers helped us think about very creative ways to keep people engaged in their communities. For example, couldn’t Google self-driving cars eventually help us provide transportation to a doctor’s appointment for people living even in very remote areas? Could communities develop ‘home sharing’ programs? What city planning and zoning ordinances need to be changed to accommodate mother-in-law or caregiver apartments attached to a home? How can banks make it easier for people to conduct their transactions when mobility becomes more challenging?

We learned so much. For example, were you aware that:

•    By 2030, 26% of Maine’s population will be 65 or older.
•    A recent poll shows 82% of people of workers over age 50 say they intend to keep working during retirement. Already, the number of workers over age 75 has grown by 172%. Work places facing worker shortages can help their more experienced employees stay on the job through strategies such as flexible work schedules.
•    AARP and Forbes magazine named Bangor, Maine as one of the best places to retire.
•    The suicide rate among elders is higher than it is among teenagers.

Now, it is your opportunity to engage in the next phase of the discussion about building aging-friendly communities. I encourage you to register for the Summit on Aging, to be held January 17 at the Augusta Civic Center. Bring some friends from your community to the Summit and then start discussions locally about how you can be innovative to develop a community that will care for its elders in a way that keeps them engaged, safe, and healthy while honoring their choices. After all, I’m counting on you.

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