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Maine's Aging Population: Turning a Liability into An Asset
01/17/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Maine Speaker of the House Mark Eves held a summit today on what he calls one of the the state's most important policy imperatives: aging. The summit capped off months of stakeholder meetings to examine the challenges and opportunities of Maine's rapidly aging population. Patty Wight reports on what's being proposed to help Maine benefit from its changing demographics.

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Aging - Mark Eves, Jessica Maurer

When Maine is referred to as the oldest state in the nation, it's usually considered a liability. That's how Democratic Speaker of the House Mark Eves (at right, with Jessica Maurer) used to view the situation - until he convened a series of meetings on aging, which he says flipped his perspective.

"It was a change for me, because you can get buried in the numbers, the facts, our demographics, and you can be paralyzed by it," Eves says. "But what we have to do is make sure we are not paralyzed by it and really see it for what it is, and that's an asset."

Those daunting demographics include projections like this: By 2030, one in four Mainers will be age 65 or older. Add the fact that Maine has one of the lowest influxes of younger people from other states, and you've got what University of Southern Maine's Muskie School economics professor Charlie Colgan describes as the baby boom and the birth dearth.

"Maine faces worker shortages rather than an abundance of labor," Colgan says. "And that's going to make it a challenge for everybody in Maine to find the workers that they need, to pay the workers. We'll have to learn to recruit and pay more, because things that are in short supply command higher prices."

But in this problem lies an opportunity, says Mark Eves. One of the goals that emerged from the summit is to convince employers to embrace an older workforce. Eves says construction company Cianbro offers a good example: When the company noticed some older employees struggling to transition into retirement, they found a new role for them as mentors.

"Really using them as the asset that they are," Eves says. "To train the new workers coming in, to transmit that knowledge and experience, and also transmit the culture of their company."

Another identified goal: creating age friendly-communities. Or as land use planning consultant Evan Richert describes them: "I have always thought of building ageless communities," because, he says, both the young and the old often look for the same qualities in a community: low property taxes and rent, walkable sidewalks, and social opportunities.

Aging - Peter MorelliRichert says the solution is actually right in front of us: the classic New England village. "We've regarded them as somewhat obsolete, tiring places that had served their purpose," he says, "But surprise - they've come back in style."

The trick, he says, is to adapt them to current needs. At least one city in Maine is actively working to do that. Saco Planning and Development Director Peter Morelli (right) says the city is in the beginning stages of following an age-friendly community program laid out by the World Health Organization and AARP, but they've already made one important change:

"We allow any house in Saco to be converted to have an in-law apartment," Morelli says. "And that's a very practical and inexpensive way of using your equity to stay in your house."

It may not sound that exciting, but changing local zoning and ordinances is actually a huge part of creating age-friendly communities, says Jessica Maurer, the co-chair of the Maine Council on Aging.

"So a concrete thing that can happen is that we can work with the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Development Foundation, and share best practice information on zoning," Maurer says.

Maine House Speaker Mark Eves says it's going to take a community-by-community approach to recognize and embrace the opportunity Maine's aging population presents. Eves is establishing work groups to create short-term plans to accomplish that goal, and he says a report with detailed recommendations will be released in the coming weeks.


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