AUGUSTA — Maine’s aging population offers both challenges and opportunities. Elder abuse is a serious challenge that devastates older adults, hurts our economy and tears at the fabric of society. The Department of Justice estimates that 1 in 9 people over 60 will be a victim of elder abuse. And it is a challenge that can be solved by capitalizing on innovative opportunities.

Elder abuse takes many forms, including physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, financial exploitation and neglect. The majority of abusers are family members and caregivers.

While causes vary, the core dynamics of elder abuse are consistent: Older adults become vulnerable when they are isolated and dependent on others.

This happens when they cannot find housing with age-appropriate services and have to leave the communities they know to live with relatives. It happens when they can no longer drive to buy food or go to church and have no access to public transportation. It happens when they can no longer repair their homes or mow their lawns and have to invite strangers in to help.

The issue of elder abuse is daunting, and yet it leads to significant opportunities for Maine – the opportunity to reduce elder abuse by building aging-friendly communities that help older adults thrive as they age. These are communities that are built collaboratively with older adults, and assess, plan and systematically meet the needs of older adults, by deploying innovative strategies and using existing community resources to address the range of issues facing older adults.

Aging-friendly communities are places committed to finding ways to help older adults age with the respect, community connection and safety they deserve.

In an aging-friendly community, older adults have more opportunities for social inclusion and civic engagement. They not only feel connected, they are connected to others in the community and to the information they need to thrive.

In these communities, town officials have agreed to broadly allow for necessary home modifications and for development of alternative housing options that keep elders in their homes, connected to the life they know. Volunteer and community-based initiatives offer transportation to shopping and socialization, daily check-in calls and vetted lists of home repair and care providers.

This isn’t some utopian dream; it’s a growing movement in Maine. Communities are coming together to build a different kind of Maine – one that sees the vast value in older adults.

For instance, a village-to-village model initiative called At Home Downeast, on the Blue Hill peninsula, acts like a condo association that, for a sliding fee, lets you stay in your home and get monthly services, including transportation. Deer Isle Plus offers a free communication network that supports older people at home. The town of Fort Fairfield built and maintains a multi-unit senior housing project to keep older adults living in the town.

Law enforcement agencies across Maine provide daily check-in calls to isolated seniors and other communities employ elder services navigators to help older people access services.

We will only end elder abuse if we acknowledge the problem, understand the dynamics and build a strong collaborative response that relies on innovation to cut to the heart of the issue.

Over the next year, as part of the Maine Aging Initiative, a group of people representing a broad segment of Maine’s economy will be working to support the development of aging-friendly communities throughout Maine. Vibrant, livable communities that meet the needs of older adults will attract new workers and strengthen our economy. They will also make older adults more connected, more engaged and safer.

As Mainers, we know that a connected community is a safer community, and connected communities for older adults are possible if we creatively work together. We can end elder abuse by building a collaborative community response to aging.

We need you to get involved! Start a community conversation today about the unmet needs of older adults in your community. You can do it informally through a church supper or more formally through a town meeting.

The reality is, all you have to do is ask older adults what they need. The conversation takes off quickly once you do, and there are many terrific tools to help you take the next step in planning for and responding to the needs.

All the tools already exist to help us build aging-friendly communities – we just have to take the next step! Join us in making Maine the way aging should be by starting a conversation in your community.

— Special to the Press Herald