With help from AARP, Mainers are building the supports they need to thrive in their own communities for life.
By Jen Van Allen Photographed by Lynn Dunbar, Rob Eaton, and Liz Gotthelf
After spending four winters in Florida, Candy Eaton, of Sullivan, grew tired of the snowbird lifestyle. Sure, the 80-degree February days were nice, but she missed her friends and her 1860 farmhouse full of 40 years of family memories.
“I just wanted to sit next to the woodstove,” the 67-year-old Eaton says. “I was homesick.”
But the Down East town of Sullivan, population 1,200, felt dead quiet in winter. “In Florida, there was just so much to avail yourself of — music, tasting events, art shows, free community events,” she says. “And we just didn’t see that up here.”
Today, with help from AARP’s Age-Friendly Communities program, things in Sullivan are changing. A new community room at the Frenchman Bay Library hosts book clubs, knitting groups, drop-in cribbage games, and other activities year-round. Every Earth Day, dozens of residents gather for a roadside cleanup and cookout. Outside the town office, dozens of volunteers work in a new community garden. Sullivan volunteers are training to provide rides to doctor appointments for those who can’t drive themselves. When the snow falls, a volunteer-led bucket brigade delivers sand to seniors and those with disabilities, to make their icy walkways and driveways easier to negotiate. Every month, more than a dozen members of the Age-Friendly Sullivan steering committee meet to keep projects like these on track and launch new ones.
“It’s like there’s a breath of fresh air that’s blown in,” says Eaton, who coordinates Sullivan’s Age-Friendly efforts. “It doesn’t have to be ‘woe is us.’ We recognize that we can build a livable community ourselves.”
Sullivan is one of 69 communities in Maine that are part of AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. The program provides a roadmap for communities to target improvements in eight domains that influence health and quality of life, including transportation, housing, social participation, and health services. Joining the network requires an application and endorsement from the local governing body, and membership gives communities access to grants and assistance from AARP. In many communities, the Age-Friendly grants help facilitate efforts already underway. The Town of Sullivan received grants from groups including AARP and Maine Community Foundation which helped fund things like a survey about what residents want a need, development of the library’s community room, a health fair, the sand-bucket brigade, and the community garden. But even more valuable, Eaton says, is the mentorship her community has received from people in other Age-Friendly communities working on similar efforts.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she says.
The Age-Friendly initiatives differ from town to town. In North Yarmouth, a survey suggested transportation wasn’t an issue, but residents wanted more opportunities for social gatherings. So the Age-Friendly committee — called Living Well in North Yarmouth — launched an annual community ice cream social, a kite festival, pickleball and ping pong programs, plus a welcome initiative for new residents. The group also partnered with town government and the Bicycle Coalition of Maine to test traffic-calming strategies that make roads safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. In Old Orchard Beach, residents have been working to improve access to public transportation and offer more opportunities for intergenerational social connection. Through a partnership with the local high school, older adults are helping students refine their resumes, and a project called Making Memories enlists students to film interviews with their elders, which are aired on the local public-access channel.
It doesn’t have to be ‘woe is us.’ We recognize that we can build a livable community ourselves.
Maine — which has the highest median age in the nation, at 44 — has more communities in the Age-Friendly network than any other state. In October, it became the program’s sixth state-level member. Maine’s embrace of the AARP initiative is a testament to the rootedness of its people, says Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Council on Aging.
“People really feel very connected to their specific communities and want to stay there as they age,” Maurer says. “They realize that they’re going to have to build systems that support that happening.”
In addition to AARP, philanthropic organizations like the John T. Gorman Foundation, Maine Community Foundation, and Maine Health Access Foundation have supported efforts to help older Mainers age safely and comfortably in their communities and allow multigenerational communities to flourish. When older Mainers thrive, says Maine Community Foundation director of grantmaking Laura Lee, it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats. Improving a community’s walkability, access to public transportation, and health services makes that place more appealing for every demographic to move to and to stay.
“If you can make a community accessible for older residents,” Lee says, “you’re going to increase engagement and accessibility for people of all ages.”