Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at

Maine is not an easy place to grow old, which is weird. After all, we continue to be the oldest state in the nation by population. You’d think it would be Florida or Nevada – but nope. It’s us.

You’d think, therefore, that we would have a plethora of elder care options, ways to make the golden years really shine. We don’t.

The very same reasons why so many of us love to live here – rural, quiet, plenty of room between us and the neighbors, and lots of open spaces in which to think – become challenging realities to elders.

Our winters are long and cold, our housing stock is old and drafty, and heating isn’t cheap. Many, like my mom, supplement with wood heat, an “extra” which becomes an essential when the power goes out. Which it does a lot.

Obviously, life gets easier for those who, unlike my fiercely independent mom, opt into one of the well-run, upscale senior communities or assisted living facilities we have here in Maine. Meals prepared, friends next door, things to do, no shoveling.

The thing is, there aren’t nearly enough of them to accommodate our expansive senior population, and while I would never begrudge them their fees (quality care comes at a cost), well – they’re not cheap. Their fees are not out of line, but for many they are out of reach.


More importantly, while the good ones are out there living up to their glossy brochure promises, there are some real horror stories out there, too.

According to a recent ProPublica report, “from 2020 to 2022, Maine’s state health department cited residential care facilities for dozens of resident rights violations and hundreds of other deficiencies. But it has imposed only one fine in response.”

Clearly, we have a real opportunity here. Large population in need of a quality, attainable solution that keeps life interesting.

I am fascinated by stories of places like Gorham House, right here in Maine, that combine elder care and preschool. This is a research-based model of coexistence that’s being used in many other places around our country and the globe and I love it.

As for where to put more of these needed facilities, I am really intrigued by the move to repurpose and reinvent vacant malls, strip malls and big box stores into residential living situations. The preexisting infrastructure of these spaces – emergency exits, plumbing on a large scale, etc. – makes it ideal for this type of revamp. It makes sense if you think about it. Let’s add old mills to the mix.

Forbes recently reported on the trend of converting malls into housing communities specifically for seniors, and in at least one example, an American developer has gone a step further and redeveloped a mall space into housing based on a community in Denmark where an entire “village” was created to house seniors living with dementia. In this model, residents experience their days as just normal days – but all through the “town” are care providers trained to assist them. It’s lovely. So kind. So humane.

It seems to me that with the overall availability of empty malls and big box stores, as well as the overall lack of affordable housing in Maine, this model could be expanded to include spaces for the unhoused and the newly arrived Mainers as well. In fact, Business Insider cites a report from Enterprise Community Partners that claims “converting 10% of strip malls into housing could create 700,000 new homes.” That’s nationwide, of course, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t have a proportional impact here.

I would love to see us at least give it a go. It won’t be for everyone. My own mother by example would never entertain such an idea. She is firmly rooted in her home and that’s not shifting. However, I feel pretty sure there are others who would. It would be exciting to see vibrant living options make good use of those currently empty spaces and see our seniors, and others, living in warm, safe, inviting communities.

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