AUGUSTA — The impact of having a different resident in the Blaine House was readily apparent at the sixth annual statewide conference on the mounting problems posed by Maine’s aging population.

Many senior advocates and service providers at the daylong Maine Wisdom Summit noted the shift in willingness under Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat elected in November, to address the many challenges bearing down on the state with the oldest population in the nation.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services Photo by Adam Grotton

Jeanne Lambrew, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations who was appointed by Mills to head the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, outlined the various ways the agency intends to address growing demand for senior health care, transportation, housing, long-term care and other services.

“There is a race against the clock,” Lambew said in her opening remarks to 375 conference attendees inside the Augusta Civic Center. “We stand ready to be your partners.”

Under former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who served the previous eight years, there was little recognition of the aging issues facing Maine, said Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Council on Aging, the organization that hosts the yearly event formerly known as the Maine Summit on Aging.

“Without the governor’s office and DHHS as partners, we really didn’t make the kind of progress we needed to make,” Maurer said during a conference break. “They actively stood in the way of progress.”

Lambrew, in contrast, told attendees that she has read the “Blueprint for Action on Aging” several times. The report, issued following the first summit in 2014, identified key steps that should be taken to help improve seniors’ access to affordable housing, transportation, health care and other services.

“To hear the commissioner say that was amazing,” Maurer said. “And she’s genuine about it. They’re taking action.”

Maurer said she hopes the Mills administration supports pending legislation that would establish a governor’s cabinet on elder issues and ensure action by future governors as well.

Maine’s senior advocates and service providers were among the first to recognize the challenges that would come with having the nation’s highest median age (44.7 years) and largest proportion of people age 65 and older (20.6 percent). The first summit followed a series of round-table discussions led by former state Rep. and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, one of LePage’s political adversaries.

In her remarks, Maurer listed a variety of problems still facing Maine seniors and their communities. About 24,000 people are turning 65 each year in Maine, and most of them can’t afford the rising cost of long-term support services that will be needed as they age. At least 10,000 older Mainers are waiting for affordable, safe and accessible senior housing. And nearly three-quarters of older Mainers live in rural areas where they don’t have access to transportation alternatives when they can no longer drive themselves.

In the absence of action by the state in recent years, community-based agencies and volunteer groups have stepped in to provide needed services, Maurer said, but it will take effort by everyone to demand action and change long-established systems.

Lambrew delivered the keynote address instead of Kathy Greenlee, a senior health policy expert and former U.S. assistant secretary of aging who canceled her appearance at the conference because of a sudden family illness.

Lambrew called Mills “a true champion” for older Mainers who is committed to ensuring that seniors live with dignity.

Lambrew noted that one of Mills’ first actions as governor was to release $15 million in voter-approved bonds to fund construction of much-needed senior housing that LePage held up for more than three years. The current administration also has restored many programs that benefit seniors but were cut by the previous administration, she said, and it’s working with various groups to improve health care, long-term care and other services for older Mainers.

Her department also is working to increase diversity and promote compassion among its employees, she said, and it’s linking with other state agencies to improve collaboration and innovation on issues such as the lack of senior transportation options, high prescription drug costs, too few medical and mental health specialists, and a labor shortage that’s plaguing long-term care facilities.

“I think there’s a lot of optimism here today, and I think it’s about having the state as a partner again,” state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, said during a conference break.

Gattine, who is House appropriations chairman, said he appreciates that Mills and Lambrew say they want to make changes based on science and data and resume a leadership role in government innovation.

“Because it’s not simply about increasing funding for programs that exist,” Gattine said. “It’s about looking at better ways to serve people.”

During a panel discussion of ways to promote healthy aging, Hallowell City Manager Nate Rudy acknowledged the challenge of drawing attention to difficult-to-discuss aging issues that many people would rather put off or ignore, especially when they call for spending more tax dollars.

Rudy said senior advocates and service providers must find a way to shift the conversation away from immediate costs “and talk about the societal and human cost of doing nothing.”

Before the conference broke into afternoon workshops, the council held a lunchtime awards ceremony recognizing several Mainers who have been active in senior affairs. Mollie Baldwin, former head of the Home Care & Hospice Alliance of Maine, and Larry Gross, former head of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, received the 2019 Lasting Legacy Award.

Gattine and state Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, received the 2019 Legislator of the Year Award; and Fran Seeley of Portland and Shirley Weaver of Kennebunk received the 2019 Trailblazing Advocate Award.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.