BIDDEFORD — The University of New England is making strides to promote healthy and active aging with the establishment of a Center for Excellence in Aging and Health.

The university announced Monday it has received a $1 million gift from Housing Initiatives of New England in support of new programs and approaches to the cause.

The university, which has campuses in both Biddeford and Portland, is the largest provider of health care professionals for the state of Maine, according to a UNE statement. The school boasts colleges for osteopathic medicine, pharmacy and dental medicine, in addition to the Westbrook College of Health Professions, which trains students in several disciplines including nursing, physician assisting, physical therapy and social work.

UNE President Danielle Ripich, who will retire at the end of June, said Wednesday the center will work to develop healthy aging programs within the context of UNE’s interprofessional education curriculum.

“I think it brings together some of the strengths of the university and the needs of the state of Maine and beyond in New England,” Ripich said by phone on Wednesday.

Maine has the highest median age in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census data, at 43.5 years old, making development of an aging center vital as the university continues to grow, Ripich said.

“(Aging is) an issue for Mainers and what we want to do in this is look at healthy aging, optimal aging and all the ways to help elders continue to be functional as long as possible,” she said. “I think healthy aging is going to become a big issue nationally as a country.”

Ripich added the center will be comprised of not only the school’s physician, pharmacy and dental students, but exercise science and athletic training students as well.

“We’re looking at all the different programs across all the colleges,” she said. “Our medical school has been ranked very strongly in geriatrics over the years so we have some strength in that area, but for our other programs, having the center will help bring this all together.”

Ripich also praised UNE Trustee Cynthia Taylor, who is the president of Housing Initiatives of New England and who helped secure the gift on behalf of its board.

“She has really, I think, come to get to know the students, faculty and areas of expertise,” Ripich said. “It’s not just (a gift from) a foundation that doesn’t know us that we applied for, this is someone who’s internally very close to the university.”

Taylor said in a release that the gift and further development of the Center for Excellence in Aging and Health is a natural extension of Housing Initiatives of New England’s work.

“This contribution to education is allowing me to achieve a career goal in providing healthy solutions for those we serve,” Taylor said. “I hope that we can support new advances, as well as new programs training students in better ways to serve people aging through the multidisciplinary education UNE offers.”

Taylor’s peers agreed, noting the UNE is perfectly poised for the establishment of such a center.

“We were very impressed by UNE’s focus on finding better ways to approach and improve aging in our communities,” said David Silk, Housing Initiative’s board chair.

Housing Initiatives of New England is a nonprofit organization that has been developing affordable apartment communities for New England’s seniors since 1990. The organization operates on the belief that quality housing combined with supportive services provides better lives for residents.

Moving forward, Ripich said, the university will conduct a national search for a director with expertise on aging and gerontology, but with a varied background, “to lead us to national prominence and change the way we educate all our students.”

“(The center) doesn’t have a home,” Ripich said. “Gerontology, because of the nature of it, has people from all different disciplines. The person we hire would likely have an academic appointment … (and) their academic home might have something to do with it.

“It really is at the very beginning stages,” she said.”

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]

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