AUGUSTA – The baby boomers who drove the nation’s economy for decades are beginning to retire, creating new challenges and opportunities in Maine, the head of the Maine Development Foundation said Tuesday.

“This tidal wave has started to crash upon the shores of retirement,” Laurie Lachance told about 160 people at the Aging Advocacy Summit at the Augusta Civic Center.

With the oldest median age in the country – 42.7 – Maine will be hit hard by the wave of new retirees. Their needs for transportation, health care and housing will put a particular strain on state and federal resources. And at a time when budget cuts to many programs are almost certain in Augusta and Washington, advocates for Maine’s senior citizens are getting ready for major battles.

“The threats to the senior safety net in Maine are bigger than they’ve ever been,” said Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

That’s why the association changed the focus of its annual fall meeting this year to teach members how to lobby state and federal lawmakers. AARP was particularly visible at the State House earlier this year, busing in red-shirted seniors to lobby against proposed budget cuts.

AARP, the Alzheimer’s Association, Home Care for Maine and other groups on Tuesday geared up for the next legislative session and learned more about what’s going on with the “supercommittee” formed by Congress to cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years. The committee has until Nov. 23 to make a recommendation.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, told attendees via Skype that the supercommittee is considering cuts to Medicaid, which provides health insurance for people with low incomes, and Medicare, health insurance for people 65 and older.

Some of the proposals would shift more of the funding responsibility to the states, while others call for moving more Medicaid-eligible citizens into private health care plans. Another idea is to raise the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 67. Yet another would shift more of the cost to people in the program.

“What my concern is … I do not believe policymakers in either party understand Medicare seniors can’t afford to pay more,” he said.

Lachance painted a sobering picture of the state’s demographics. By 2030, more than one-quarter of all Mainers will be 65 or older. And while the poverty rate of that age group has dropped from 26 percent in 1970 to 9.5 percent today, more older Mainers are living in rural areas, where transportation and health care are more difficult to access. And Maine’s roads and bridges are in tough shape.

“The combination of bad roads and older drivers is a terrifying combination,” she said.
But she said senior citizens also contribute to a healthy society with volunteer work, public service and support of cultural assets like theaters.

“People are living longer,” she said. “They are healthier. They have greater financial means. They are active and engaged in the community. Maine needs to engage seniors to survive and thrive.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]