Department of Public Works employees are delivering buckets of sand to seniors as a part of a new program offered through Age-Friendly South Portland. Above, Chris Savage talks with Janice Reeg after delivering sand to her house on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

SOUTH PORTLAND — Fear of falling plagues Janice Reeg throughout the winter months.

She pays someone to clear her driveway when it snows, and she shovels her steps and walkway. But slipping on ice is a constant worry for the 64-year-old speech pathologist. She has difficulty walking and has fallen in the past.

So when Chris Savage and Ray Roberts showed up last week with a free 5-gallon bucket of sand, Reeg’s effusive response to the very practical delivery was understandable.

“I’m thrilled,” Reeg told the city workers. “It’s a very nice thing you’re doing.”

The Sand Buckets for Seniors program is one of the first efforts by the fledgling Age-Friendly South Portland initiative to meet the needs of older city residents. The basic but potentially life-saving program has been so well received – nearly 240 sand buckets have been delivered so far this season – it has bolstered community members who are developing a variety of other programs to help seniors and others live well.

Age-Friendly South Portland is one of more than 100 grassroots groups that have formed across the state in recent years to respond to the needs of Maine’s rapidly aging population. They include 70 communities, from Eliot to Caribou to Eastport, that have gone through a formal survey process, committed to supporting senior programs with tax dollars, and joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities.

Maine now has the highest number of registered AARP Age-Friendly Communities in the nation, leading to its designation last October as one of only six AARP Age-Friendly States, along with New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida and Michigan. Senior advocates in Maine have been pushing for action for several years, including the sixth annual Maine Wisdom Summit on aging issues held last September.

Dubbed “Age-Friendliest State” on one AARP webpage, Maine has reason to get ready. It has the nation’s oldest population by median age (44.7 years) and largest proportion of people age 65 and older (20.6 percent). By 2030, more than one-quarter of the state’s residents are expected to be retirement age.

Maine’s success in establishing age-friendly initiatives is rooted in Yankee ingenuity, practicality and community spirit, stepping in where state government action has been lacking in past years. Demographics are playing a role, too. Many age-friendly volunteers are nearing or at retirement age themselves, said Patricia Oh, an age-friendly consultant with AARP Maine.

“We have a lot of older and recently retired people who are passionate about improving their communities,” Oh said. “They are skilled people – retired nurses, school administrators and other professionals – who are committed to making changes that benefit all ages. And they’re doing it in low-cost, no-cost and creative, grassroots ways.”

In Auburn, high school students are recording the histories of older residents. Mount Vernon established a “tool library” especially for older adults and volunteers who help them. The Handy IT program in Saco helps seniors learn how to use computer technology. North Yarmouth holds an annual, all-ages kite festival and ice cream social.

In South Portland, the free sand bucket program was set up to serve seniors and others who cannot get their own at the public works garage because they have health or mobility issues. It’s the first project spearheaded by an 11-member committee appointed by the City Council last year to implement recommendations from a survey of South Portland residents age 65 and older.

The committee set aside $1,300 from its $15,000 budget to get the program started but hasn’t spent much of it. The city firefighters’ union kicked in $250 as part of its effort to minimize senior falls, and The Home Depot provided half-price buckets and covers. The public works department takes phone and email requests, provides the sand-salt mix and delivers the buckets when staff members have time.

Department of Public Works employees are delivering buckets of sand to seniors as a part of a new program offered through Age-Friendly South Portland. Above, Ray Roberts grabs a bucket of sand before delivering it to a resident’s house on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The committee expected 40 to 50 requests but got 238, including calls for refills. The feedback has been overwhelming.

“I’ve never received so many follow-up calls from residents thanking us for doing this,” said Denise Michaud, administrative assistant at the public works department. “A five-gallon bucket of sand is heavy and hard to lift. We put it exactly where they need it and they really appreciate it.”

South Portland seniors and other city residents who have mobility issues may request free sand bucket delivery by calling the public works office at 767-7635 or emailing [email protected]

The committee is taking steps to tackle a variety of health and home-maintenance concerns; increase transportation options and safe access to public spaces; reduce social isolation and inactivity; and improve communication about existing programs that many seniors say they need but don’t know about.

A volunteer snow-shoveling service, an efficient and accessible senior shuttle, a senior drop-in center, a social network for single seniors and a printed directory of senior resources are some of the projects in the works.

“We’re starting with things not addressed by existing programs and making sure people know about existing programs,” said City Councilor Susan Henderson, a committee member.

“The difference between what seniors need at 65 and 85 is significant,” Henderson continued. “Many older seniors don’t go online for their information. We’re making it possible for seniors to access information about services without going online.”

Making it possible or easier for seniors to get out of the house and get together is a major goal for committee members, said Lisa Joyce, outreach librarian for the South Portland Public Library. She delivers books to homebound residents. She knows how isolated some people are.

“There’s a lot of social isolation and it’s killing people,” Joyce said. “People are alone and they’re sad and they want to stay in their homes, but there’s a downside to that.”

The idea that making things better for seniors will make things better for everyone is central to most age-friendly initiatives. In South Portland, the senior implementation committee is co-chaired by Maxine Beecher, 76, a former city councilor, and Chad MacLeod, 28, a web health information specialist.

MacLeod acknowledges that he brings a younger perspective to Age-Friendly South Portland. He also knows the committee is doing important and necessary work. Within five years, he and his girlfriend, Laura Lee, will have 12 family members in Greater Portland who will be over age 65 and likely to need assistance at some point.

“We’re developing intergenerational support for seniors and putting programs in place that will make our cities and towns more livable for people of all ages,” MacLeod said of age-friendly initiatives.

Some of the new senior programs underway or being planned in South Portland include offering balance-building exercise classes at the public library, hiring a community resource specialist to help seniors find needed services, and organizing a handyman service to help seniors with home repairs.

The committee also plans to renovate three former day-care classrooms at the South Portland Community Center into a senior drop-in center. The committee is seeking $40,000 in federal block grant funding to cover most of the renovations costs.

The drop-in center would be dedicated space where older residents can gather to take classes, work on crafts, play cards and games, celebrate special events or just hang out. The hope is to combat chronic isolation among elders that studies have shown can be as harmful to their health as smoking or excessive drinking.

“You can be isolated and live in the middle of a city,” Beecher said. “There’s a loneliness that too many people suffer with. And some of them aren’t the type to call others for help because they’re used to doing things for themselves.”

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