September 22, 2015 by Jean
Last week, I attended the Maine Summit on Aging, sponsored by the Maine Council on Aging. Maine’s position as the state with the oldest median age has made the needs of an aging population a live issue here. The Maine Council on Aging would like Maine to become a recognized national leader in developing innovative policies to support aging well. To that end, the state legislature has already developed a bipartisan Caucus on Aging for legislators who are particularly interested in addressing these concerns.
The Summit was a gathering of elders, policy makers, and those who provide services to elders. The day was divided into plenary sessions and breakout sessions. There was also an anteroom where exhibitors were providing information and pitching products and services. The seating for the plenary sessions and for lunch was at round banquet tables, which encouraged interaction among participants. I sat with my friend Rhoda, a recent retiree from a social service job who knew many other participants and an extravert who’s great at striking up conversations with strangers.
The morning plenary session focused on Maine’s aging demographic and its economic implications. This was followed by ten different breakout sessions on diverse policy issues. Most of these addressed issues of aging and “thriving” in place. Both Rhoda and I would have liked to attend the session on “Advancing New Models of Housing and Land Use,” but it was by far the most popular choice and was already full before either of us registered. As a second choice, Rhoda attended the session on “Age Friendly Communities at Work” and I selected the session on “Designing Local Volunteer Transportation Initiatives.”
Transportation is a critical issue in Maine because most of the population lives in rural areas. In the 2010 census, 80% of the United States population lived in urban areas (this includes suburbs) and an even higher 85% of the population in the northeast lived in urban areas, but only 40% of Maine’s population was urban. In rural areas, population and services are spread out over large areas and there is typically no public transportation. Under these circumstances, no longer being able to drive cuts a person off from needed goods, services, and social interaction. The breakout session included presentations about three different volunteer transportation programs in rural Maine communities. The presenters were agreed that public transportation was unlikely to be viable in such communities (many don’t even have taxi service) and that local volunteer initiatives are the most practical way to address these needs. All three programs were volunteer-based, with fundraising separated from services so that there is no charge for using the services. The oldest of the three programs had expanded to include other services as volunteer drivers learned that the elders they drove often needed more than just a ride. This session was full of practical information about how to get started in creating a local program and about critical issues to address. I left it with an increased interest in this issue and encouragement that there was action I could take.
The afternoon plenary session consisted primarily of a panel discussion about “Innovative Community Solutions at Work” and included discussion of a variety of needs, programs and resources. Once again, the feeling was upbeat, with a sense that a lot of good things are happening in Maine and there is much we can accomplish at both the local and state levels. All-in-all, the day was a good one and left me feeling much more integrated and involved in my home state. I’m glad I participated and will definitely consider going again next year.