2017-08-04 / Front Page

City moves to create elder advocacy group

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — It was about two years ago, South Portland City Councilor Maxine Beecher said, when her eyes were truly opened to the needs of some senior citizens in the area.

A Cumberland County Sheriff’s Deputy arrived on her doorstep saying he’d just served a subpoena at a home in her district, and she ought to get over to the home “right away,” because the owner was “in big trouble,” Beecher said, recalling the incident at the July 24 city council meeting. But the trouble was not of a legal nature, it had more to do with the elderly woman’s living conditions.

“What I found, well, you and I would never believe that in the city of South Portland there could be such a thing,” Beecher said. “The odor of mold and mildew would have knocked you cold. It was so horrible.” Surprisingly, despite the lack of maintenance to the home, the woman had a giant flatscreen television hanging on her living room wall. And here’s where the story gets “truly sad,” Beecher recalled, because when she asked the woman – who was bundled in three layers of heavy clothing because she had no heat – how she could afford such a luxury while passing on basic necessities, the woman said her grandson and his girlfriend had just moved in, and gone on a buying spree using her credit cards.

With Beecher acting as an advocate, the city provided an emergency delivery of home heating oil though its general assistance program and helped resolve the mold issues in the home.

“She lived in a typical neighborhood, with a neighbor right here, a neighbor right there, but she was a prideful person, and she would not go and knock on a door and say, ‘I need help.’ There was nothing at all to make her life pleasant, and this city stepped up, and I mean stepped up, and took care of that mess,” Beecher said.

Since then, Beecher has struggled with how best to get senior citizens the help they need to get by in Maine’s fourth largest city. After all, as baby boomers cross into their golden years, the number in need increases exponentially.

According to an American Community Survey demographic and housing five-year estimate, covering the years 2011-2015, 14.6 percent of South Portland’s population is age 65 or older, with another 13.1 percent coming along right behind them in the 55 to 65 age bracket. And yet, while the median income in South Portland is $54,598, among senior citizens that falls to $36,000. It’s not an issue that affects South Portland alone. Maine is often touted as the oldest state in the nation, and, according to a 2013 AARP report, “By 2030, it is estimated that one out of every four Mainers will be over 65.”

“This is something that a lot of surrounding communities are addressing in one way or another,” said City Manager Scott Morelli. “But, unlike on many issues, we are not at the forefront of this.”

However, Beecher thinks she’s on to solution. Over the past two months, she has worked with a group including herself, City Councilor Susan Henderson and former councilor Melissa Linscott, along with residents Marilyn Reilly and Elizabeth Ross Holmstrom to formulate a plan.

That proposal, presented to Beecher and Henderson’s peers July 24, includes forming an ad hoc advisory committee, designed, according to its framers, “to ensure senior citizens in our community have access to services enabling them to age safely and with dignity in the community where they have roots.”

“We know South Portland has some great programs,” Beecher said. “But the problem is manyfold, as access and needs are known.”

According to the proposal, if the city council votes to create the committee – a decision is likely to come at its Aug. 7 meeting – the group will “develop a comprehensive strategy for communicating to our seniors the programs available to them,” delivering recommendations for doing so within 16 months, or by December 2018. To do that, the committee will collect data from a “convenience survey” of people 65 and older from across all voting districts and neighborhoods in South Portland. It will also conduct a variety of focus group sessions and interview people from agencies that work with the elderly. The goal will be to tabulate what programs exist to aid senior citizens in South Portland and identify any gaps between the help that is offered and the things seniors say they need.

“If we don’t identify and meet the needs of senior citizens, then we are going to increase the health care costs of everybody,” Henderson said. “More importantly even, unless we can meet the needs of our older people, we are going to lose their wisdom, judgement, skills, and knowledge in our community.”

In one wrinkle from how the council normally staffs a committee, Beecher asked that she and her core group of five be allowed to pick and choose amongst themselves the 11 people who should serve, rather than have the council make individual appointments.

“The truth of the matter is, we’ve been meeting for two months now and we know what needs to be done and we’ve figured out how to do some things,” she said. “We ask that you trust us to put the people we need on our team, rather than have each councilor put somebody on, because we know the experts.”

For her part, Henderson said figuring out what seniors in the city need will prove to be a boon to all residents.

“Communities that facilitate aging in place will make the community a more thriving and dynamic environment for all age groups,” Henderson said, noting, “a sidewalk that can accommodate a wheelchair can accommodate a stroller.”

Beecher asked that when the council votes Aug. 7, it approve $6,000 to help pay for the survey and arrangement of the focus groups. However, a majority of Beecher’s peers encouraged her to ask for more.

“A $6,000 request (for this), I’d do that all day long, every day,” said Counilor Claude Morgan. “I don’t think you should be shy about asking for more. It warrants a serious study.”

“I’d rather see you get exactly what you need, rather than giving us an estimate and not being able to finish and come back for more,” Councilor Linda Cohen agreed.

“It sometimes takes someone with single-minded focus,” Mayor Patti Smith said, thanking Beecher and Henderson for championing the topic. “I would agree with the city manager wholeheartedly that we have been behind the curve on this particular topic. And I would agree with my fellow councilors that, in order to catch up to that particular curve that we’ve maybe missed the ball on, if we need to move the financial dollar from $6,000 to $10,000, or whatever it may be, I think that for the years that weren’t spent doing this work, sometimes you have to pay the piper for playing catchup.”

Smith also predicted that, within a year or two, the new committee will end up shedding its ad hoc status to become a standing interest. Given the coming wave of people on the far end of the baby boom, Morgan agreed.

“I think you are right on the cusp of something really big,” he said.

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