Issues like affordable housing, food security, and the labor shortage have been dogging Maine for decades, and the 65-and-over set — who make up a little more than 20 percent of Maine’s population, the highest proportion in the nation — have been hit particularly hard by these issues, especially during the pandemic. This legislative session, the Maine Council on Aging is weighing in on more than 160 bills addressing a sweeping array of issues impacting older adults. Jessica Maurer, the council’s executive director, sat down with Down East to discuss some of the council’s advocacy priorities.
What legislative proposals are the Maine Council on Aging championing at the moment?
If not for emergency COVID funding, which is due to run out soon, hundreds of older Mainers would be waiting to receive Meals on Wheels. During COVID, demand for the program more than doubled. There’s a bill before the legislature that appropriates $3 million to permanently fund the waitlist and address growing demand. Without permanent funding, once the COVID funds are exhausted, people who qualify for Meals on Wheels will have to be removed from the program.
There’s another bill that, among other things, provides funding to eliminate the waitlist for Section 63, a state-funded program that provides home-based care for those who don’t have the means to pay for it but don’t qualify for MaineCare. Right now, there are nearly 1,000 people on the waitlist for Section 63. Both Section 63 and Meals on Wheels help people stay in their homes and communities, where they want to be, instead of having to go into nursing homes or hospitals.
Has the labor shortage made it more difficult for older Mainers to receive care?
We’re facing a huge need for essential support workers — those who provide assistance with activities of daily living, like getting in and out of bed and bathing, for older Mainers, as well as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and behavioral challenges. Thousands of people can’t get the support they need. It’s just the market. We need to figure out how to incentivize people to work in these areas. This was a problem before the pandemic, and COVID has absolutely exacerbated it. Last summer, the legislature passed a bill that, among other things, boosts pay for essential support workers to at least 125 percent of the minimum wage and requires the state to review pay rates on an ongoing basis. That went into effect January 1. The bill also implemented other measures to help build this workforce, including a student-loan forgiveness program, the hiring of navigators in career centers to help people access benefits and training, and a public outreach campaign to promote these jobs as an on-ramp to health-care careers. Surveys of the market are also underway to determine how we can be competitive in pay and understand what would effectively attract people to these jobs.
All of this is a good start. We still need to create some real structural incentives for people to enter these careers. These might be subsidies for childcare or housing, transportation vouchers, or interest-free microloans that help people meet immediate needs, like fixing a car. We need something significantly bigger to give a jumpstart to people who want to work in this field, rather than in other similar or even higher-paying jobs.
How is Maine’s affordable-housing crunch impacting older adults?
We have a significant and pervasive mismatch between the housing we have and the housing that adults in their 80s and 90s need. There comes a time when the house you intended to grow old in doesn’t work for you, and as a state, we just haven’t developed affordable alternatives. Right now, 10,000 older Mainers are waiting to access affordable housing. While the state needs to increase funding for this housing, we’ll never be able to dedicate resources to develop thousands of new units to meet demand.
Last year, the legislature created a commission to increase housing opportunities by studying zoning and land-use restrictions. Other bills are also on the table that would incentivize weatherization and repairs and promote the construction of energy-efficient affordable homes. A lot of towns and cities are also trying to address this in their own communities. In some cases, it means changing local zoning laws around accessory dwelling units to create more feasible living situations for families and caregivers. In other cases, it can mean changing outdated regulations around group housing to make way for options where older adults can live independently but get assistance with things like housekeeping, laundry, and meals.
Your organization recently launched something called the Power in Aging Project. What’s that all about?
We’re having very targeted conversations with human-resources leaders, employers, financial institutions, health-care providers, the media, and others about ageism. We’re trying to help them see how ageism is holding us back from building multigenerational workplaces and communities and a strong economy. The state has a huge labor shortage, and the 65-and-older population can help address that. We want to help organizations develop strategies to recruit and retain older workers. That may mean offering flexible work arrangements, removing age data from the job application process, and including ageism in conversations and training about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Like racial equity, this is not about being color-blind or age-blind, it’s about intentionally seeing that different ages of people need different things and that all people are worthy of living fully integrated into their communities regardless of age. As a just society, we need to understand these differences, then plan to meet them.
Find details about the Power of Aging Project and other initiatives at mainecouncilonaging.org. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.