SACO — Faced with the challenges of an aging population, Saco is positioning itself as one of the first communities in Maine to develop a comprehensive approach to becoming an age-friendly community.

Saco, which hosted a kick-off to its community assessment Tuesday night, is believed to be one of the first municipalities in the state to hold a community forum to address various issues, from transportation to social inclusion.

An age-friendly community is one that plans and prepares to actively engage older adults in creating infrastructure and services that effectively accommodate the needs of the community across the full aging continuum, said Patricia Kimball, co-author of a September report that studied how to create an age-friendly Maine.

“This is really a community development process,” Kimball said. “If we can get this right, we can be a model for the rest of the country.”

Maine’s median age – 43.5 years – is the highest in the nation, in part because of a dwindling younger population, according to the U.S. Census. The state’s proportion of people age 65 and older – 17 percent – is second only to Florida’s 18.2 percent.

By 2030, more than 25 percent of Mainers will be 65 or older, magnifying existing shortages in transportation, housing, health care, long-term care and elder services. The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram is examining aging issues in an ongoing series, “The Challenge of Our Age.”

Those trends are mirrored in Saco, where the median age is 41.9 years. About 13 percent – or 2,436 people – of the city’s nearly 19,000 residents are 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census. The median age in York County is 43.

Development Director Peter Morelli said his push to look at aging issues was prompted in part by his recent realization that Atlantic Heights, a development for seniors, is the largest single taxpayer in the city and among the top five employers.

“I thought we should make a conscious effort to align policy with our demographics,” Morelli said.

Creating an age-friendly community is a concept that AARP Maine has promoted in recent months and state leaders have addressed in an ongoing series of round-table talks on aging issues facing Maine. The American Association of Planners held forums on the state’s aging issues in June.

Until recently, however, most of the action on aging issues was happening at the local level, among agencies and individuals trying to address mounting shortages in senior housing, transportation, health care and long-term care. Experts say Maine could become a national model if political leaders and policy-makers act soon and harness grassroots efforts like the one happening in Saco.

“There’s so much good stuff happening at the local level, but we need to scale up,” said Jana Lynott, a senior strategic policy adviser at AARP’s Public Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. She’s working on the aging policy guide for the national planner’s group.

“There’s growing curiosity and concern among state officials, but I’m not seeing it translate into policy action,” Lynott said. “States need to take an active role and step up to the plate.”

Charles Colgan, an economist and professor from the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, said it is essential to ensure that an age-friendly community is one that is set up to attract people of all ages, not just the elderly.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com