Gray resident Natalie Blake stands outside Gray Town Hall, where she sometimes brings her ideas to better help the town’s older residents. Kristen McNerney / Lakes Region Weekly

For 87-year-old Natalie Blake of Gray, getting behind the wheel, going for daily walks and staying social aren’t difficult to do. Still, Blake said she was probably one of the first ones to sign up this year for a free service offered by the community geared toward her age group.

For a second year in a row, Blake will be one of a handful of Gray seniors this fall to have her leaves raked by students at Gray-New Gloucester High School.

“They had extraordinary energy,” Blake, a widow who lives alone, said of the teens in the high school’s Community Service Club who cleaned up her yard last year. “One girl must have been on her knees for 15 to 20 minutes picking out leaves in the garden.”

Gray’s community-driven Life-Long Living Committee is facilitating the yard cleanup program again this fall after its kick-off last year showed success. On Nov. 6, high schoolers will show up at the homes of local seniors who need help, committee founder Sharon Young said. About half a dozen seniors signed up last fall, Young said, and she’s hoping more will this year.

The effort comes from a 2020 survey conducted by the committee that showed seniors in Gray struggled more overall with home maintenance, such as lawn care and snow removal, than they did with physical mobility, transportation and daily living demands such as cooking and cleaning. The survey was mailed to all Gray residents thought to be age 65 or older. Just over 300 seniors, or 31%, responded.

“It was very informative,” Young said. “Over 90% of seniors (who responded) were still driving themselves.”

While Blake, who described herself as more active and social than many others in their late 80s, regularly commutes to work as a a part-time preacher at East Baldwin Congregational Church, there are some things she can’t do on her own. She recalled one project that needed a neighbor’s help.

“I have a screened-in porch mostly for storage and I was having problems with the door,” Blake recalled. “There was a board that was rotting. I don’t bend too well and can’t get down on my knees.”

Lawn care is another thing Blake said she’s struggled with because operating a leaf blower triggers her asthma.

The lawn care program allows Gray’s seniors to check one item off the list while allowing them to form positive relationships with younger community members, Young said. “Older people are sometimes intimidated by younger people,” she said. “This gives them an opportunity to interact with some really great kids.”

Allison Kimball, a senior at Gray-New Gloucester High School who organized the yard cleanup last year with the town, said the experience made her more aware of the needs of her grandparents, who live next door to her.

“I didn’t realize how heavy bags of leaves were,” Kimball said.

Young said there’s more that can be done for seniors besides raking leaves, but it’s a good place to start. The Life-Long Living Committee, formed in the wake of the survey, led the town to become a member of The AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities earlier this spring.

“It’s a recognition that you’re working on that goal, that you have an intent to make your community more livable for all ages,” she said. Based on data from the Maine Council on Aging, “Gray has an incredibly low number of seniors that can remain in town past 80 compared to other communities,” Young said. “That’s a result of not having housing available and at low cost.”

Blake agrees that helping seniors stay in their homes is a priority. She also said she supports better transportation in town, because although she can walk and drive, others her age cannot. In order to help beat the isolation that comes with old age, “it would be easier for them if they got a way to get to the library to pick up a book or see a film,” Blake suggested.

Young said the yard cleanup is an important first step in addressing some of the underlying problems seniors face. The Maine Council on Aging is also wrapping up a pilot program that includes Gray, South Portland, Eastport and Hallowell, and is focused on helping towns create plans to support healthy aging, she said.

“The survey was the starting point,” Young said. “The leaves are showing that we’re going to do something.”

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