AARP OUTREACH: We may be the oldest state but we’re primed to lead the way

by Japhet Els

There’s opportunity in Maine, though it’s not often in plain sight. We believe that communities often have the best solutions baked into them already so what’s needed isn’t big investments from shiny-shoed bankers but instead the bootstraps many of us were born with here in Central Maine.

Nearly every day it seems we Mainers are reminded we are the oldest state. But what follows this statement? In fact, what follows this constant reminder is silence. Or perhaps acceptance. What should follow this reminder, if we were truly “leading the way,” are examples of how Maine is the best place in the nation to age-in-place, or how Maine is tops in how it makes healthcare and prescription drugs more affordable for older Mainers. Or, perhaps how Maine prioritizes more ways for today’s workers to save for retirement through their employer, whether they work for themselves or one of the thousands of local, small businesses. We should be leading the way, nationally, on issues impacting older Mainers.

But we’re not.

Maine isn’t leading the way when it comes to helping its rural citizens age-in-place, in the very communities they helped build. Maine is not leading the way in developing low-cost, affordable, senior housing helping older residents live closer to their doctor, pharmacy, and grocery store. Maine is not leading the way in advancing better options for workers to save for retirement. Currently, more than 30 percent of Mainers 65+ have no source of income other than their Social Security check which, on average, is only $1,100 a month. For many, that barely covers life’s necessities such as food, heating fuel, medications and housing costs.

There’s work to be done. And Mainers have never shied away from hard work.

We’ve created monthly community events around Maine to begin this work. They are part of a first step in a long-term effort to change the way we build communities, and more importantly, change the way we talk to each other. The goal is to give anyone an excuse to come out and talk about some of the issues impacting older Mainers and their families. If we can’t get together to talk about them, how can we possibly begin to solve them?

So far, more than 150 local community members have attended four community coffees at the Miller’s Table in Skowhegan, gatherings covering topics from healthcare to education to supporting small businesses. We may not fix all the challenges our communities face, but we learn more about these issues and each other. That’s the most important part of our engagement work here in Maine: expanding our social networks in person so we can begin to tackle some of the problems we face, in person.

AARP’s Age-Friendly initiative is another way we’re empowering local communities to begin upgrading how they develop, build, and modernize for the future. Each Age-Friendly Community, of which there are more than 60 statewide, is led by their own local citizens. The Age-Friendly effort is truly grassroots and a partnership that is laying the groundwork for stronger communities, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, county by county. In fact, right here in Somerset County three communities have banded together to begin developing their own age-friendly campaigns – Skowhegan, Madison and Jackman.

We may be the oldest state but we’re primed to lead the way on the most important issues facing this aging nation. We owe it to those who’ve helped shape the Maine of today through hard work and grit, to continue to develop and build the Maine of tomorrow. I hope you’ll come out for a cup of coffee and start the conversation.

Japhet Els is Outreach Director for AARP Maine and, with the help of volunteers Pamela Patridge, June Hovey, and Deborah Poulin, he leads the monthly Skowhegan Coffee Talk at The Miller’s Table. The next coffee is scheduled for Wednesday, October 30, at 9:30 a.m. All are welcome.

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