AUGUSTA – New statistics on senior poverty released Tuesday at the Maine Summit on Aging show Maine seniors are heavily dependent on Social Security and face greater economic vulnerability than previously indicated by the nation’s official poverty numbers.

The challenge of how to help Maine’s growing population of seniors facing high medical bills while living on fixed incomes was among the issues highlighted at the second annual Maine Summit on Aging. The state and local communities must also stay focused on issues such as housing, transportation and creating a multi-generational workforce, said community, business and policy leaders who met in Augusta on Tuesday.

More than 500 attended the summit to share ideas about creating age-friendly communities and learn about ongoing initiatives to support Maine seniors. It was sponsored by the Maine Council on Aging and the Maine Legislative Caucus on Aging.

Last year’s summit was the first gathering of its kind in the nation and led to a variety of legislative and community efforts to address the challenges that are facing Maine because it has a growing senior population.

“(The first summit) put Maine on the map in leading on aging issues,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, a member of the first-in-the-nation bipartisan aging caucus formed to tackle issues facing Maine. “We want to make sure we continue the momentum. We are being asked around the country what is Maine doing?”

Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, said the rapid aging of the state’s population “has significant implications for Maine’s economic growth and opens the door for innovation, creativity and new collaborations.”

Maine is the oldest state based on median age (43.5 years) and the second-oldest based on the proportion of people age 65 and older (17 percent), according to the U.S. Census. Florida is No. 1 with 18.2 percent.

Maine also has the highest proportion of baby boomers – 29 percent of its 1.3 million residents were born in the period from 1946 to 1964. By 2030, more than 25 percent of Mainers will be 65 or older.

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram analysis series, The Challenge of Our Age, documented existing and growing shortages in senior housing, home care, long-term care, transportation and other areas that threaten to cripple the state economically and socially.

Beth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, said the report on senior poverty shows medical costs are a huge driver of financial challenges for Maine seniors.

The report, written by Mattingly and Andrew Schaefer, shows that the nation’s official poverty measure fails to account for the role of rising medical costs in pushing seniors into poverty. The newer Supplemental Poverty Measure – which includes factors like medical costs instead of just income – reveals that 1 in 10 Maine seniors were living below the poverty line in 2009-2013. This is 2.3 percentage points higher than official estimates, according to the report.

The report also shows that while poverty among seniors has declined greatly since the late 1960s, as it has across the country, about half of Maine seniors (51 percent) would be poor without Social Security benefits.

Without medical expenses, poverty among Maine seniors would be cut roughly in half, from 10.2 percent to 5.2 percent, according to the report.

“In addition to demonstrating the critical importance of Social Security for seniors, this research highlights the need for greater advocacy and policy to support seniors and a greater investment in programs to support aging adults,” the report’s authors concluded.

Throughout the summit, community leaders urged support for a $15 million senior housing bond that will be on the Nov. 3 ballot. Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said the bond is essential to help address a critical shortage in affordable housing options for seniors.

Legislators had initially proposed a $65 million bond bill – subject to voter approval – to build up to 1,000 units of affordable, energy-efficient housing for senior citizens. A recent report by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition estimated the current need for affordable senior housing at 9,000 units and predicted that figure will rise to 15,000 units by 2022. The amount in the bill was reduced to $15 million during late negotiations on a bond package.

During the summit, Eves was recognized with the Legislator of the Year award. Portland Press Herald reporter Kelley Bouchard was given the Journalistic Excellence on Aging award for her contribution to the “Challenge of Our Age” series.