2017-11-24 / Community

Senior input sought for survey of elder needs

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Over the past few weeks, mysterious signs with the words “Thank You Senior Citizens” have cropped up on telephone poles across South Portland. Naturally, the question has arisen for nearly every commuter across the city – which seniors? And thank them for what?

But the seniors in question are not members of the high school class of 2018. They are, in fact, the city’s senior citizen population. The thanks is for responding to a survey circulated by South Portland’s new ad hoc advisory committee on aging, and the signs are a guerilla marketing campaign concocted by City Councilor Maxine Beecher.

“I started this campaign because I was haunted by a senior who lived in my district,” Beecher said. “One day a county sheriff’s deputy pulled into my driveway and said to me, ‘You need to help this lady that I just visited to serve her a warrant for outstanding credit card debt among other debt.’

I went to her house and I have never seen such a horror, or smelled such stink. She answered the door wearing two winter coats, a wool hat and heavy boots. She had no heat. No food. Oil tank empty. Luckily we of the city, when made aware of this issue, stepped up, and, with the help of some of the county deputies, fixed this lady’s home, including removal of mold and mildew, and showed her how to get help including legal stuff.

This story has never left my mind,” Beecher said. “Then, when I took a bad fall, I really knew what needing some help meant. I couldn’t drive because my left elbow was shattered and pinned and screwed and the pain was unbearable. So here it was again, a senior who needed help. I was lucky. My sister and friends, plus the VNA (Visiting Nurse Association) came to rescue me. But as I lay there I knew it was time to stop procrastinating and see how many other seniors were in need.”

In August, with urging from Beecher and fellow councilor Susan Henderson, the South Portland City Council voted unanimously to create the Ad Hoc Committee on Aging, in hopes of determining how best to get senior citizens the help they need in Maine’s fourth largest city. After all, as more and more 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 for the years 2011-2015, 14.6 percent of South Portland’s population is 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, that falls to a mere $36,000 among senior citizens. Of course, 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 and Henderson, along with former Councilor Melissa Linscott, and residents Marilyn Reilly and Elizabeth Ross Holmstrom had a plan. Together with a host of others tapped to serve on the committee, they’re working, “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.”

The committee intends to “develop a comprehensive strategy for communicating to our seniors the programs available to them,” delivering recommendations for doing so to the full council by December 2018. To do that, the committee is collecting survey data from 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 is to tabulate what programs currently exist to aid senior citizens in South Portland and identify any gaps between the help that is offered and the things seniors say they actually 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.

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

“It sometimes takes someone with single-minded focus,” Mayor Patti Smith said, thanking Councilors Beecher and Henderson at a July meeting, for championing the issue. “I would agree with the city manager wholeheartedly that we have been behind the curve on this particular topic. I think you are right on the cusp of something really big.”

But the council appropriated just $6,000 for the committee to conduct its survey – a number Beecher purposefully kept low, she said, to minimize the financial hit to taxpayers. And so, Beecher has gotten creative in circulating word about the survey, in hopes of sparking interest by eliciting curiosity.

“These seniors and generations before them were the ones who built our city, a city of many neighborhoods,” Beecher said. “As I look across the bay I see tall cement colored buildings. Neighborhoods or villages and small elementary schools make for good neighbors. How about the trails, Millcreek Park, and Bug Light Park, meant to recognize and celebrate the building of Liberty Ships by that generation. I could go on and on but the bottom line is, ‘Thank you, seniors for your manner of design that makes this a city recognized as one of the best 100 cities in the U.S.A. in which to live.’ We must start to watch out for our seniors and check on them and give them resources or ways to access resources to make it possible for them to live here for the rest of their lives.”

Thus the posters, as well as a sign put up outside the fire and police station on Broadway, in order to hype the survey and generate as great a response as possible.

“If you are 65 or older and live here, whether you live in your own home, in an apartment or senior housing, we want to hear from you,” Beecher said.

Seniors are asked to return their surveys as soon as possible, as the committee expects to begin tabulating results from the four-page questionnaire no later than Dec. 12.

Anyone age 65 or older who did not get a survey in the mail, or distributed through their group home or elder care facility, should contact Beecher by emailing mbeecher@southportland.org, or calling 799-8888.

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