Peg Orlando, a Harpswell Aging at Home volunteer, serves food at Tuesday’s Lunch With Friends event. The weekly lunches are free to the community and serve as an opportunity for those who may live alone to socialize. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record 

HARPSWELL — A group of residents in Maine’s oldest town is trying to make sure those that are elderly and living alone are not isolated during the winter. Harpswell Aging at Home’s free weekly lunch program, Lunch With Friends, provides meals and offers an opportunity for social connections.

“These lunches satisfy peoples’ physical needs, but they do so much more,” said Patricia Oh, an age-friendly consultant for AARP Maine. “When people aren’t making the social connections they need, they stay in their home, which isn’t good for mental acuity. Everybody needs a reason to get up in the morning, and usually that reason is connected to a social activity like going to work, taking care of a child or visiting a friend.” 

According to the National Institute on Aging, social isolation and loneliness pose serious health risks, including cognitive decline, depression and heart disease, especially in older populations.

“People who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility and lack of transportation are at particular risk,” according to a 2019 study from the National Institute on Aging

Harpswell has a population of about 4,700 with a median age of 58, making it the state’s oldest town, according to the U.S. Census. Just over 34% of the population is 65 and older, 14% of which live alone. Sixteen percent of people 65 and older live below the poverty line.

Surrey Hardcastle, the chairwoman of the food team for Harpswell Aging at Home, said the free meals began in 2017 as a way to ensure people who may not be able to cook for themselves have a home-cooked meal, but organizers soon found the regular events fostered friendships among strangers.

“The whole idea of this effort is to help the community eat and eat well,” said Hardcastle. “The byproduct is socialization, and that’s huge. People are keeping tabs of one another. If one of our regulars doesn’t come, people ask about them and check on them.”

In 2019, the organization served 3,300 meals. Hardcastle estimated each event sees 40 to 70 people, but they’ve seen as many as 100 people at a singular event. All of the food served is made by volunteers or organizations that sponsor an event.

One group of men, most of whom live alone, come to every lunch.

“These lunches are a chance to get out and see people,” said Steve Johnson of Harpswell. “It’s a long, cold winter and we sit at home alone all day so this is quite a treat.”

When Terri LaRussa moved to Harpswell from New York a year ago, she attended a lunch but said she, “Didn’t understand what the point was.”

After giving it a second try, she said she discovered she moved to a community where people care for one another. She now volunteers with Harpswell Aging at home attends every lunch.

“This is a community like I’ve never experienced before,” said LaRussa.

Oh said the lunches provide a time for people to interact as well as a chance to build a social network of people they can call on when they need help.

Johnson said people regularly bring food to friends and neighbors who are housebound, ensuring they get a friend to talk to as well as a hot meal.

The next Lunch With Friends is at noon on Thursday at the Merriconeag Grange in North Harpswell.

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