Long before she was a published author, and years before she served two terms in the Maine State Legislature, Maria Holt, now 88, left her hometown of Farmington and traveled with a girlfriend to enroll in a prestigious public nursing program in New York City.

The city had an innovative visiting nurse service, created in 1891 by the pioneering social worker Lillian Wald to provide health care to immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By the time Maria arrived, the service was adapting to changing demographics in the post-war era, where 50 percent of their patients were elderly.

The job offered the two small-town women a window into the city’s diversity. After they treated their elderly patients in their homes, they would often be invited to stay and visit in their backyard gardens.

“They’d say, ‘Don’t go, you stay and eat with us,’” Maria recalled. “I was pretty lucky as a Maine woman to learn from people who come from all over. That was my education.”

Her experience caring for those patients is one of the reasons Maria supports Question 1, an initiative on Maine’s ballot this November to provide universal home care for seniors and people with disabilities and increase wages for home care workers—one in five of whom live in poverty. many of her daily needs, the initiative would allow her to continue living in her home and stay connected to her friends, neighbors and the community where she raised her family.

Three of Maria’s children have moved away from Maine. Two are on the West Coast and she has a daughter in France. She has two sons nearby who visit and care for her when they can. “I wish they were all here,” Maria said.

On days when her sons are not around, home care workers come to the house to help her with the things that she can no longer do easily by herself, now that joint pain has limited her mobility and kept her mostly inside. They help her with bathing, preparing meals and doing the laundry. “They are wonderful,” Maria said.

They handle the kind of vital but overlooked tasks she herself did for her patients back in her days in New York City. She is grateful to have their help and their company and knows how much of themselves the job requires.

Their current pay for this work, she says, seems far too low.

She has noticed too that the need for in-home care is high in Bath and care workers are in short supply. “They are running out a bit,” she said. “There are people who need them in the area.”

Maria was able to build a life for herself working as visiting nurse. She worked in New York for three years before she met and married her husband, Dr. Alfred Holt. He moved his small medical practice to Bath, where the couple settled and raised their five children.

Maria looks back at her time in the visiting nurse service as a defining moment in her life.

“I thought this is a wonderful job, but it’s tough on you,” Maria said. “You had to be kind, and you had to be brave, and sometimes you just wanted to cry.”

Still pursuing her passions

Maria’s husband passed away 12 years ago. She has had to sell the house on the hill where they raised their children and she now lives in a smaller home outside of Bath. “I miss my darling husband terribly. But I try to keep on,” said Maria.

Her passion now is writing. She pens stories about her family and her time as an anti-nuclear activist. Last year, Maria and her writing partner, Betty King, published a book together, “The Death of Maine Yankee: Antinuclear Activists’ Adventures 1969-1996.” The book chronicles the two women’s efforts to force Maine Yankee, the state’s only nuclear power plant, to make their emissions public and comply with state oversight. Betty passed away prior to the book’s release.

Maria said her concerns about nuclear power were born in the horrific images of Hiroshima she saw as a child in Farmington. It spurred her towards environmentalism, which she focused on in her eight years as a state representative.

“I was angry about war. And I’ve been angry about war ever since. So here I am,” said Maria.

Restoring a caring community

Maria says that better home care options are needed in part because communities don’t look after one another as well as they once did. She recalls a favorite neighbor of hers from across the street who Maria looked after when she fell at a supermarket and hurt her knee.

“I think about when I was very young, you know I lived with my grandmother and grandfather, because it was a hard time,” she recalled. “There was someone coming to take care of them always. A doctor could walk to them from his office. There were people nearby who could help.”

“Nowadays,” Maria said, “it seems we’re all separated from each other too much.”

Aging in Maine has changed from the days when Maria lived with her grandparents in Farmington. As her children have grown and moved away, she realizes how much of her independence is owed to the care workers who come into her home. They remind her of herself and her years in New York City.

She is grateful for them and her nearby sons who are helping her stay in her home as long as possible. She intends to keep on by writing about coming of age in Farmington, raising children in Bath, and her education in the backyard gardens of her New York City patients.

The preceding originally appeared on mainebeacon.com, a website and podcast created by progressive group the Maine People’s Alliance.

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