2018-03-02 / Front Page

Port looks to become ‘age friendly’

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — Nearly one year and 21 meetings after it was formed, Kennebunkport’s ad hoc senior advisory committee has released its recommendations — one of which is that it become a standing organization within the town.

Goose Rocks Beach resident Bill Lefler, who chairs the six-member group, told selectmen when submitting a final report at the board’s Feb. 22 session, that two main goals should be set as a result of the year-long study.

The first is that Kennebunkport seek to become one of 42 towns across Maine certified by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) as an “age-friendly community.”

Biddeford, Kennebunk, Old Orchard Beach, and Saco already carry the WHO/AARP age-friendly designation. A major step in gaining that stamp of approval, Lefler said, is for selectmen to strike the “ad hoc” from the senior committee’s name and make it a permanent concern.

To gain an AARP endorsement as a municipality dedicated to helping seniors “age in place” — that is, to remain independent and free of institutionalized care for as long as possible — selectmen would have to sign a written commitment to achieving that goal. Then, in addition to reconstituting the senior advisory group as a standing committee, selectmen would need to arrange for a series of stakeholder meetings and commission a needs assessment of area seniors.

“Certainly, the beginnings of that (assessment) have happened with the successful survey we have just conducted,” committee member Susan Gesing said.

The survey of folks age 65 and older, largely circulated and returned with tax bills and included in the final report, drew 335 responses from year-round residents. Lefler said that equated to a response rate from that pool of about 33 percent. In addition, another “100 or so” survey forms came back from seasonal residents, Lefler said

“This is a remarkably large number of responses and it speaks highly of who we are as a community,” he said.

Because it did not include a true random sample, but instead allowed people to choose whether or not they felt motivated enough positively or negatively by services in Kennebunkport for seniors to fill out and return the form, the survey was not a true scientific poll. Still, selectmen seemed duly impressed by the results and the picture it paints of Kennebunkport as one of the greyest towns in what is often said to be the oldest state in the nation.

“I’m very pleased with the results of your work,” board chairman Patrick Briggs told the committee. “I think you have created a valuable resource for our town.

“I thought I had a reasonable idea of what was out there, but this is like, ‘Whoa!’” Briggs said. “It’s like standing out there on the beach not knowing the tsunami was coming and it’s arrived.”

“This goes to highlight why we need to work on bringing young families to town,” selectman Ed Hutchins said, noting that when he was young, Kennebunkport had far more multi-generational homes, where younger members cared for the grandparents. But increasingly, older residents of town do not have young relatives nearby to lean on for support. Most seniors in town live with a spouse or partner alone, with only 9 percent noting the presence of a younger relative in the home.

According to committee member Susan Boak, two significant areas of concern uncovered by the survey of local seniors are transportation, and home maintenance.

“The good news is that most people (who answered the survey) — about 98 percent — own their own homes,” Boak said. “The bad news is that 9 percent have difficulty maintaining them.”

Nearly 860 residents of Kennebunkport are age 65 or older. That’s 25 percent of the local population — a greater older demographic than either Kennebunk (22 percent) or Arundel (12 percent). Of the Port’s senior population, 511 (14.7 percent) are between the ages of 65 and 74, 264 (7.6 percent) are between 75 and 84, and 82 (2.4 percent) are 85 or older.

Of the total senior base, 4 percent cited “some issues” with winter heat, with problems ranging from a lack of home insulation to the high cost of oil. Meanwhile, 6 percent indicated that shoveling steps and sidewalks was “a problem.” About 15 percent said their homes need modification for senior living, typically expressing frustration with steps and second-story bedrooms.

Meanwhile, of the 9 percent who claimed to be unable to keep up with home maintenance, 19 percent reported problems finding reliable service providers, 38 percent said they simply could not afford to pay for the needed repairs, and 43 percent said the work went undone because they could no longer do the work themselves.

“This was always addressed apologetically in the survey responses,” Boak said.

Perhaps surprisingly, 96 percent of the seniors surveyed reported still driving their own cars, although 27 percent of that group acknowledged some limitations, such as an unwillingness to drive at night.

However, “it is shocking to note,” the report said, that of the 4 percent who do not drive, more than 70 percent live alone. This highlighted a need of those residents, the committee said, given a lack of transportation for certain purposes.

‘Think of a three-legged stool with only two legs,” Boak said. “We currently have medical transportation through FISH (Friends in Service Helping), which is run out of The Senior Center (located in Kennebunk’s Lower Village), but nothing for shopping and social.”

“If you can’t get to you appointments or you can’t get out to do groceries, that’s a problem,” Hutchins said.

Meanwhile, the committee learned many older residents simply don’t know what help is out there. For example, only 70 percent said they were aware Kennebunkport has a town nurse who provides services free of charge. For that reason, “more communication is needed,” Lefler said, with the town making an active effort to reach out to its older residents. That can be done online. Fully 93 percent of seniors reported using the internet daily, although that number dropped to fewer that 51 percent among those age 85 and older. Still, the report said, “the most reliable way to reach older adults is through the newspaper.”

The overall goal of gaining WHO/ AARP certification as an age-friendly town is to create an ongoing awareness that helps move the care of senior citizens to the front burner of municipal policy and future spending. However, Gesing said seniors should not be thought of as a special interest group that sucks up public dollars for their interests alone.

“What is good for one age group in a community is really good for all,” she said. “If the sidewalks are easy to walk on for older people, they are good for mothers with strollers as well.”

About 83 percent of survey respondents said they are currently as social as they care to be, with 80 percent saying they get out of the house at least five days per week.

Walking and gardening are the most common forms of exercises for this group, the report points out. However, some 10 percent of survey takers reported issues with walking around town, citing a lack of sidewalks, granite outcroppings, narrow roads, and speeding cars as contributing factors to their general unwillingness to perambulate their neighborhoods and local villages.

Selectmen said they needed time to digest the committee report before taking any official action. Even so, they suggested the first step, creating a standing advisory committee on senior issues, could come as soon as their next meeting, March 8.

“We are definitely very interested in going forward,” selectman Allen Daggett said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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