Maine has the oldest population in the nation, and with that distinction come profound challenges that promise to escalate over the next several decades.

Poverty, abuse and lack of access to adequate health care, housing and transportation already threaten many older Mainers in a mostly rural state that venerates independence as much as it celebrates community.

Family members struggle to find and pay for quality long-term care for aging parents and grandparents with a variety of health issues and income limits. Some become caregivers themselves, even while working full-time and raising their own families.

The ramifications of aging in Maine are expected to intensify as the percentage of the state’s 1.3 million residents age 65-plus increases from 16 percent in 2010 to 21 percent by 2030, according to U.S. Census projections.

In response to this trend, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram will publish an extensive series of stories this year on the challenges and opportunities of growing older in Maine, where the median age of 42.7 years is the highest in the nation.

The newspaper is calling on Mainers to share their experiences and help us produce stories that are comprehensive and engaging, that identify potential solutions to a variety of concerns and that inspire policymakers to push for effective change now.

“Virtually every family in Maine will be confronting these challenges,” said Cliff Schechtman, the newspaper’s executive editor. “We’re reaching out to readers so they can help us tell their stories and begin a communitywide dialogue on a matter of great public concern.”

The stories also will assess the state’s ability to handle the varied needs of a rapidly growing senior population, taking into account the roles of government agencies, housing developers, health care groups, nursing homes and other care providers.

The newspaper wants to hear the personal experiences and insights of seniors, family members, caregivers and others on far-ranging topics such as making ends meet on Social Security, getting good health care when the nearest doctor is 40 miles away and finding a nursing home for a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related illnesses will prove to be one of Maine’s greatest social, economic and health care challenges in the coming years, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, Maine Chapter.

More than 37,000 Mainers have the disease today, and that number is expected to grow to 53,000 by 2020, largely because of population growth among seniors and improved diagnosis and awareness of the disease.

Despite Alzheimer’s prevalence in Maine, a report released this month found widespread stigma and ignorance associated with the disease; late diagnoses and spotty and ineffective medical care; lack of support for family caregivers; and limited access to quality long-term care.

The “State Plan for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias in Maine” identifies the disease as a public health crisis that must be “addressed with a thoughtful, integrated and cost-effective approach that is easier for individuals and families to navigate.”

But other challenges related to aging in Maine have received little attention, including poverty, housing, transportation and access to adequate health care, said Lori Parham, state director, AARP Maine, which has 230,000 members.

One-third of Mainers age 65-plus rely solely on Social Security income, which averages $1,084 per month in Maine, Parham said.

Older Mainers also have the highest rate of food insecurity in New England, yet they’re often unaware of or reluctant to participate in community feeding programs, she said.

And many older Mainers are isolated from family, friends and neighbors because they can no longer drive and they live in communities where public transportation is nonexistent, inaccessible or inhospitable, Parham said.

“We are facing serious challenges, but there are huge opportunities to address those challenges,” Parham said. “This is the time to be having these conversations.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]