2019-01-11 / Front Page

City gets better grasp on needs of its seniors

By Kelley Bouchard
Portland Press Herald

SOUTH PORTLAND — A new report shows many of the city’s older residents need help with home repairs and have a hard time getting around because of poorly maintained sidewalks and streets, especially in the winter.

Many still live in single-family homes or condominiums and can no longer afford their property taxes, and they say the city isn’t providing enough tax relief, according to the report, based on an anonymous survey answered by 837 residents age 65 and older.

While most respondents said they feel safe at home and in their community, focus groups found that some struggle with hunger, social isolation, elder abuse and financial scams, among other challenges.

Some of the younger respondents said they’re doing OK now, but they worry about their older neighbors.

“Although I have no issues at this time, I have two elderly neighbors who live at home,” one respondent wrote. “I try to check on them, but it worries me that they have no reliable help for shopping or health care. They are very isolated.”

The South Portland City Council is scheduled to discuss the survey report from the Senior Citizens Ad Hoc Advisory Committee during a workshop Tuesday, Jan. 22. The report asks the council to form an implementation committee to make sure a variety of recommendations become reality.

To help seniors age in place, the report recommends forming a volunteer homemaintenance service, organizing a free-ride network, offering economic incentives to businesses that become more agefriendly, and surveying city parks and sidewalks for pedestrian access problems.

“Some things will happen fairly quickly, some things may take a while,” said Councilor Susan Henderson, who co-chairs the advisory committee with Councilor Maxine Beecher. “A lot of what’s needed is common sense.”

In his inaugural address in December, Mayor Claude Morgan cited the report’s upcoming release and asked residents to make 2019 the “Year of the Senior Citizen in South Portland.” The report was distributed to the council last month and will be posted on the city’s website before the Jan. 22 workshop, Henderson said.

South Portland is among a growing number of Maine cities and towns that are taking steps to make their communities more livable for older residents. It’s a major concern because Maine’s population is now solidly the oldest in the nation, with the highest median age of 44.7 years – meaning the younger population is dwindling – and tied, with Florida and Montana, for the largest proportion of residents age 65 and older – 19 percent of the state’s 1.3 million people, according to the U.S. Census.

About 100 grassroots initiatives have cropped up across Maine in the past few years to help seniors remain in their homes and stay connected to their communities. They include about 60 municipalities, from Kennebunk to Caribou, that have joined the AARP Network of Age- Friendly Communities and committed to supporting senior programs through their city or town budget.

The initiatives provide a variety of assistance, often by volunteers, such as home repair programs, transportation services, home-delivered meals, snow shoveling, and community events focused on seniors – all geared toward maximizing the health and minimizing the social isolation of older residents.

“We have a lot to do and a lot to learn from what other communities have already done,” Henderson said. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel.”

South Portland’s survey was based on the World Health Organization’s “domains of livability” as adapted by AARP to measure age-friendly communities. They include outdoor spaces and public buildings, transportation, housing, social and civic participation, communication and information, and community and health services.

The committee mailed out 4,185 surveys. Of the 837 that were returned, 704 were from residents age 65 to 84 and 133 were from residents age 85 or older.

Well over half of the respondents indicated a need for assistance with snow removal and yard work, followed by carpentry and painting. Several noted the need for more affordable and better planned senior housing that’s near stores, banks and pharmacies.

When respondents were asked to share additional information that they thought the committee should know, many focused on access to public buildings and open spaces.

“Respondents overwhelmingly spoke to inadequate street lighting, poorly maintained sidewalks, parking, lack of snow removal, particularly on sidewalks and where (city) plow leaves snow in driveways, speeding traffic and difficulty crossing intersections,” the report concluded.

Respondents also noted the need for more reliable and better coordinated information about what’s happening in the city, especially senior activities at the South Portland Community Center, which some said were good, but others said were lacking compared with neighboring towns.

“In many instances it’s not just older people who will benefit from the changes we make,” Henderson said. “The sidewalk that’s difficult for a senior with a walker is difficult for a parent with a stroller. So if we make things better for older people, we’ll make things better for everybody.”

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