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Aging in Place: Programs Helping More Mainers Grow Old at Home

Maine has the oldest population in the U.S., with 17 percent of residents now aged 65 or over. And it's expected to get even older. Many of these older Mainers will develop health or mobility challenges that will force them to make a choice: either move to assisted living, or figure out a way to stay in their homes. As Lucas Randall-Owens reports, there is growing support behind a concept called "aging in place."

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One-hundred-year-old Ed Wurler (right) lives by himself in Waldoboro. Even at this advanced age, he says he doesn't like the idea of moving into a nursing home. "I've thought about it but I don't want to," he says. "I've got a nice place to live here."

Wurler's home is well kept, and sits at the end of a dirt road next to a lake. Small cameras set up throughout his house keep a watchful eye out for accidents or emergencies, and are monitored by a program called "Elder Power."

Wurler says he does not see his family much, and has little contact with anyone except Carol, his main caregiver, who checks on him a couple times a week. "It would probably be better for me if I lived in town where I see more people, but I like it out here. I've been out here long enough, enjoy this place very much."

Aging in PlaceJust a few miles away in the town of Jefferson, 84-year-old Theresa Burrill also lives by herself. She relies mostly on family and friends, and says she would only feel the need to go to a nursing home if that support structure was no longer there.

"If I lose my friends, or have no or few friends available to me - you know they may be sick or move away - and I find that I'm a stranger now in town, then I would find going to a nursing home may have a social benefit with more people there," she says. "But other than that I have everything here to fill my needs."

It's not uncommon for many older Mainers to want to stay their homes, to maintain independence in a familiar setting, says Kara Janes of At Home Downeast, a program that helps seniors in Washington and Hancock counties live independently.

And Janes says some are also resistant to accepting help because they fear it may be the first step toward being pushed into a nursing facility. "But it's exactly the opposite," she says. "If they can start their plan and know where their resources are and start to get them, they're going to have all the support they need to stay in their home."

But funding can be another barrier for some older Mainers. The loss of funding from Washington has had an effect on at-home care programs, says Noel Merrill, the executive director of the Eastern Area Agency on Aging.

"With sequestration, the Budget Control Act, we lost a lot of money," he says. "So, we're finding we are having to do entrepreneurial things, entrepreneurial efforts to provide services to people, and I think towns can do that, local groups can do it and I think that's where the solution lies."

And, says one advocate of aging in place, there are efforts in communities in Maine and around the country to help older Americans stay at home.

"The most remarkable example I have seen has been in a town north of Orlando in Florida where the fire department..the fire chief, the police department, parks and rec, the mayor. Everybody in the town has made it a priority to make the community more elder friendly," says Dr. Chip Teel.

Teel is a family physician in Damariscotta, and the author of "Alone and Invisible No More," a book about grassroots efforts to help elders age in place. he says some are funded programs, others are just cooperative efforts in local communities.

"There's a small grassroots network in Kennebunk of just 30 neighbors who have got together and they call themselves the old friends group. And they meet regularly to see how they can help each other. There is a national aging in place council that has 30 or 40 chapters around the country. So there are tremendous small and large efforts going on around the country where communities are using their existing resources in a variety of ways."

Those efforts could take on more importance: Over the next 15 years it's projected that a quarter of all Maine residents will be over the age of 65.

Photos:  Lucas Randall-Owens


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