Linda Cronkhite, 77, sits in her Brunswick home. Cronkhite, like 68% of other seniors, said she intends to stay there as she ages. (Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — Linda Cronkhite’s Brunswick home is lavishly decorated. There are paintings and artifacts from her world travels adorning each of its brightly colored walls, and fine couches and comfortable seating in every room.

Jim, who asked we not use his last name, has more modest decor at his home in Bowdoin, with limited seating but plenty of books and a few photos and drawings from two little girls that are like granddaughters him. The two homes could not be more different, but to the two people living in them, they are just that: home. And that’s where they intend to stay.

Cronkhite, 77, and Jim, 63, are among the approximately 68% of seniors who want to live in their current home as they age, while also remaining independent, according to a 2018 study by Home Instead Senior Care. Of those, 78% said it was an emotional decision — driven by the fact that their current homes and communities are where they feel happy and comfortable.

Home is familiar, which helps people maintain independence. Plus, for homeowners, it’s less expensive than moving, said Eric Gosselin, director of operations for CHANS Home Health and Hospice. “It’s where people want to be … (but) it’s harder to stay there as they get older,” he said.

“I intend to stay in my home, I’m not going anywhere,” Cronkhite said in an interview. “I’ve lived here for 30 years, my neighborhood is important to me,” she added.

Jim feels the same. He worked for most of his life, never had a wife or kids, and while he made some mistakes when building his house, it’s his own.

“I got raked over the coals, but it’s my coals,” he said. “I’m gonna die in this house,” he added bluntly.

Maine is the oldest state in the country with a median age of 44.3, more than six years older than the national average of 38, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. People over the age of 62 account for 23% of Maine’s population.

In Brunswick, that’s even higher. While the median age is just barely lower at 43.8, people over the age of 62 make up a quarter of the population.

“This population needs support,” said Stacy Frizzle, executive director of People Plus, an community center for area seniors.

Through programs like the Volunteer Transportation Network, VTN-Plus, the Good Morning Call In program, tax and bill assistance and others, Frizzle is determined to help seniors, particularly homebound seniors who live alone, live long and successful lives. The Volunteer Transportation Network is a free, volunteer-based rideshare program to help people get where they need to go. Last year, there were 486 riders (an increase from 405 in 2017) and 78 drivers gave over 2,266 rides totaling 21,177 miles.

“These are people who live at home without access to a lot of services,” Frizzle said. “Some are legally blind and can’t drive or are recovering from surgery or have financial restrictions” that do not allow them to have a car. “We don’t ask those questions,” she said. “We don’t care what your reason is.”

The program, initially funded by the United Way, has grown by leaps and bounds since it first started 10 years ago with only about a dozen riders. With riders clustered in Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell they are now they are trying to extend their reach to Bath and also deeper into the communities they already serve.

“People don’t like to admit they need help,” Frizzle said. “The biggest thing we hear is that people think someone else needs it more.”

Of the now nearly 500 riders, 75% are women who live alone, usually having outlived their husbands, and 90% have financial limitations.

“Their income doesn’t change but the cost of living and the taxes do,” Frizzle added.

In December, the town council approved a property tax rent and rebate program designed to help give Brunswick seniors some tax relief. To qualify, a person needs to be at least 70 years old and have lived in a Brunswick home for at least 10 years and be up to date on current property taxes. That alone will not help keep people at home.

VTN-Plus, which is an extension of the original Volunteer Transportation Network goes “Beyond the Ride,” as its tagline suggests, and helps fill in some of the gaps.

Volunteers, many of whom are also drivers, help people with small tasks around the house or mini chores and errands. If there’s something they can’t do they will help connect them to other community services, Frizzle said.

“All too often, women especially end up with lower income and have to scrimp and save,” Cronkhite said. “I’m able to provide for my needs that I have, but not a lot of people can.”

Cronkhite is a sponsor of the program, which she said helps people “not just live, but live well.” It allows people to stay at home longer, where it’s more personal, less expensive and might even have the added comfort of pets.

In a nursing home “You might get three meals a day and have someone watch you so you don’t fall but … home is better,” she said. “When you’re ripped away from (home support) it’s very difficult,” she added.

By interacting with other people, the programs also help to decrease the isolation that can come with living alone and being homebound. Depression and anxiety, poor hygiene and nutrition can be very problematic in older populations, but “when they know they can go somewhere (or see someone) they take better care of themselves,” Frizzle said. “We look to support people aging in place.”

This also is what CHANS Home Health and Hospice and Bath Housing are trying to do through the Community Aging in Place Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) program. The program, developed by Johns Hopkins University, works to identify and make adaptability changes and minor repairs around the home to make it easier for aging or disabled residents to stay. Over the course of 10 visits, a nurse, occupational therapist and “aging specialist” (similar to a handyman) will work on small changes like nutrition, stretches and grab bar installation. They might bring in in a stool so the person can still cook or buy smaller trash cans so he or she can better handle taking out the garbage.

“It fills a gap to keep them in their homes, which is a great place to be,” Gosselin said. The program launched in the Midcoast in April 2018 with a target of 20 clients. Instead, they only had four, which Gosselin said he thinks was the result of only doing internal marketing, but that for the four they worked with, they made positive change. It helps improve strength, balance, cleanliness, health and home safety while decreasing isolation and depression, he said. The free program does require that the clients own their homes and there are some income eligibility guidelines but does not require a doctor’s referral.

“It’s meant to be a short-term program but an empowering one,” he said.

“What they’re doing is making my life easier, making me live longer,” said Jim, a CAPABLE client.

Jim has had a slew of health problems for most of his life. He has had diabetes for decades, has limited rotation in his arms and was diagnosed with prostate cancer when he was about 14, he said. Combined with his attitude and a history of drinking, a doctor told him he wouldn’t live to see 55.

“I never expected to live this long,” Jim said. He spent most of his life just working, going decades without taking a day off. “All I was doing was killing myself,” he said.

Now he’s out of work and has been in and out of the hospital. “By the time I make mortgage and pay my bills, I’m pretty much toast,” he said, left with about $100 a month to live on, which “ain’t cuttin’ it.”

“Life hasn’t been fair to me,” he said, but the people at the CAPABLE program “have been so good to me and are good about checking up on me.”

They helped him better maintain his blood sugar through proper nutrition after a few accidents and a faulty blood machine left him in the hospital. They put in some grab bars in the bathroom, put in a carbon monoxide detector, replaced his microwave and installed a new screen door.

“I’m concerned I’m going to end up in a wheelchair in a nursing home,” he said. “That’s being alive but it’s not living.”

Jim is content to stay home and read a book, maybe go see a friend’s daughters, who are like grandchildren to him, in their cheerleading competitions. He feels he has the CAPABLE program to help with that. “I love the people,” he said. “They care.”

Cronkhite too, appreciates the help of local services to keep her at home.

“Life should be fun,” “Keep living, keep involved, enjoy what you’ve been given and thank god you are still around.”

For more information about people plus call (207) 729-0757 or visit www.peopleplusmaine.org

To reach the CAPABLE program, call Bath Housing at (207) 443-3116

[email protected]

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