Much In Common

Maine is emerging as a national leader in the Age-Friendly Communities initiative.

When Al and Jackie Cressy first closed their bed and breakfast in Bethel in 2014, they found themselves feeling unmoored, like they were drifting into uncertain new territory. For the first 15 years of their retirement, they had run Rivendell House, a B&B named after the Elven realm in Tolkien’s Middle-earth that had welcomed a steady stream of leaf peepers, skiers, and hikers to this idyllic part of western Maine. But heading into their 70s, they felt they were losing their roles in the wider community.

The Cressys found themselves discussing the issue of aging with their friends, passing around books such as Being Mortal by the Boston-based surgeon Atul Gawande. Its questions about the failing modern health care system and the flawed mindset we bring to the aging process resonated with the doubts circling their minds. The following spring, Jackie and her friend Rosabelle Tifft attended a meeting organized by AARP Maine that changed the course of their lives—as well as the lives of residents throughout the Bethel area. The meeting was about the organization’s Network of Age- Friendly Communities, an affiliate of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program—an international effort launched in 2006 to help cities prepare for rapid population aging and urbanization. Jackie and Rosabelle came home that night energized and deeply inspired. What if they were to help get Bethel involved in this program and make it a better place for everyone to age in?

Three years later, Bethel has emerged as a trailblazing model of livability in the United States. It is pioneering a new “regional model,” changing the very way that the WHO imagines the ways in which rural communities can become more age-friendly. Al has become the chair of the Bethel Region Age-Friendly Advisory Committee, organizing a group of 55 joyful volunteers. “As a retiree for 20 years, I feel it’s important to be able do something that makes a difference,” he says. “The bottom line for both of us in all of this is our sense of satisfaction— that we’re really helping to make a difference in our towns. We aren’t going to solve all problems overnight. But we do small things. And some people begin to notice what’s happening. And they get excited.”

Preparing for an Aging World

The planet’s population is aging. According to WHO estimates, the number of people aged 60 or older will rise from 900 million in 2015 to two billion in 2050; that’s a shift from representing 12 percent of the world’s population to 22 percent. There were 46 million people aged 65 or older in the U.S. in 2017 and that number is projected to climb to 73 million over the next 15 years.

“Aging in place” is the key concept behind the livable communities initiative, explains Lori Parham, the state director for AARP Maine. It’s about reacting to the new reality by building communities that are far more healthy, intergenerational, and caring. “If you survey people over 50, they overwhelmingly will tell you that they want to grow old in their home or community where they live,” she says. “They don’t want to end up in a nursing home. As it turns out, Mainers across generations want many of the same things, and AARP Maine has been working to build communities where people of all ages can prosper.”

The idea makes economic sense. According to data compiled by Oxford Economics and AARP, the “longevity economy”—defined as the sum of all economic activity serving the needs of Mainers over 50—accounted for 52 percent of Maine’s total GDP in 2013, a whopping $29 billion. Economic activity includes the likes of health care, employment, and tech purchases. “These people tend to give more charitably, they pay more taxes, they volunteer more hours, and they’re supporting the local economy,” says Parham. “The example I use all over the place is my grandmother and the beauty shop she went to once a week. The longer older Mainers are able to be active and connected, the more they can contribute to local economies and participate in civic life.”

How to Build an Age-Friendly Community

The age-friendly community initiative focuses on helping people age in place by making the infrastructure and services of a community more inclusive. It’s a multiyear program based on the “eight domains of livability:” outdoor spaces and buildings made accessible for people of all ages; transportation options; housing that helps people age in place; social participation; respect and inclusion; work and civic engagement  opportunities; communication and information; and community and health services.

All it takes is someone in the community to get inspired—an individual resident, nonprofit, or local official—then meetings are held and the highest elected official sends a letter and application to the WHO. Once an application is approved, a committee is formed and the first two years are spent in assessments. These encompass surveys, focus groups, and the fine art of having conversations with your neighbors. A report is written to show which parts of the eight domains the community will focus on, and an action plan is drafted to activate that change. The AARP provides the framework for communities to do all of this themselves. “We’re developing the tools that help them do the work independently,” explains Parham. “And what’s really exciting is we’re really developing a learning community across the state.”

When Bethel went through the assessment process, it quickly became clear that transportation was its most pressing issue. Older people in the area were finding it very difficult to get to appointments with specialists located nearer to the coast, as well as to run errands. The action plan included forming a neighbor-to-neighbor ride program, which offers free rides to seniors over 65 with a team of 12 insured and trained volunteer drivers. “We take people to church,” says Cressy. “We take them to tai chi classes, we take them to physical therapy, to their eye doctor. My wife Jackie organized a Walking in the Gym program and three times a week people who wish to go to that class will call for a ride.” They also established a partnership with Lewiston-based Community Concepts, which has provided 100 free medical rides to those aged 60 and over.

As Bethel expanded its program, it realized it needed to extend its reach to include five other towns; there was no point in setting up five different ride programs when one program across the region was working beautifully. This required Parham to push the envelope with the national AARP office in Washington, D.C., and get approval from the WHO. The resulting regional approach pioneered by Bethel is now being used in other towns in Maine such as Somerset County’s three communities of Jackman, Skowhegan, and Madison, as well as in Alaska, the Dakotas, and rural communities across the United States.

While the age-friendly action plan includes a range of initiatives across the eight domains, the ride program is the one that is getting a lot of attention nationally, and it’s turning Al Cressy into a lobbyist. “Right now, the state of Maine provides little to no funding for volunteer driving programs in a rural setting such as ours,” he explains. “So I went to Augusta two separate times to talk to the state legislature, to indicate who we are, what our interests in volunteer driving programs are, and to urge them for funding.” In May 2017, LD 1248, “An Act to Improve Public Transportation in Maine,” was passed by the Maine State Legislature. Among other provisions, it “provides funding to the Department of Transportation to support and expand local volunteer driver networks … and for regional transportation providers throughout the State to expand their services.” However, the bill was then carried over into the Second Regular Session in January 2018 to determine whether the State is able to actually fund it. Cressy explains, “With so many priorities facing the legislators, the outcome of LD 1248 still remains to be seen.”

Making Hallowell More Livable

Watching people like Al Cressy carry the voice of his generation into the State House fills Nate Rudy with delight. Rudy, 42, became City Manager of Hallowell in 2016—and he’s a prime example of a municipal official getting excited about AARP’s initiative and taking action from his side.

“If you really want to be stunned and amazed and encouraged by people’s advocacy, go to age-friendly day at the State House where there is this ocean of red shirts sitting up in the gallery during the legislature,” says Rudy. “I think we’re going to get to a place where this program grows and has a lot of influence over decision-making in the state.”

We’re meeting in the historic Hallowell City Hall on a December morning as fresh snow is being shoveled from the sidewalks. I find Rudy standing in his office in front of three monitors, furiously tapping on a keyboard. He sits down when Patricia Oh arrives; she is the AARP Maine Age-Friendly team lead who supports community efforts at a grassroots level. Rudy begins by quoting Wendell Berry, the pioneering poet, novelist, environmentalist, and farmer: “‘I believe that community— in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak to the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.’ I’ve taken that as my mission, my guiding principle, ever since I’ve started work as a planner,” he says.

He adds that when he first came across the WHO’s eight domains of livability, it struck him as an extremely practical and effective model for community change. “I think the eight domains concept speaks to everything that everyone is talking about, in terms of urban revitalization and placemaking, community engagement, and the underpinning housing and transportation issues that challenge Maine,” he says. “It gives you a framework that is scalable to whatever size community you’re working in.”

Oh adds that part of the program’s power is that it encourages input from a population that has traditionally been on the sidelines. “Given the fact we live in an ageist society, many older people don’t feel a part of the work that’s happening in communities,” she says. “And in Maine, because we’re emphasizing rural communities, a lot of our efforts are led by older volunteers who report to their town government about changes that benefit residents of all ages.”

In 2016, Maine had a total of 22 communities involved in the program. By the end of 2017, that number had doubled to 44. Now at 46, Maine has the most age-friendly communities of any state in the country. These range from cities like Portland, to Old Orchard Beach, Saco, and Biddeford—who are all working together—to small communities at the farthest reaches of the state such as Jackman, population 862. What’s ultimately so moving and inspiring about this program is how it’s taking the ideas, experiences, and energy of an entire generation of Mainers, and giving them the tools and platform to build a more resilient and compassionate community. Nate Rudy believes that city managers throughout the state need to be closely monitoring and considering adopting this program. “I wish I could sit down with a group of municipal managers and say: you need to do this,” he says. “This isn’t just another thing to keep you busy, this will help you do your work more than anything I’ve seen before.”