It is no secret that Maine’s population is aging, and it is increasingly important for us to address the corresponding challenges.

By 2030, a quarter of Maine’s residents are projected to be older than 65. Somerset County has the state’s highest poverty rate for this group, with more than 14 percent of seniors living at or below the poverty line. By way of comparison, the figure is 10.1 percent statewide and 9.4 percent nationally.

We must ensure aging Mainers have access to health care, housing and transportation. We also must fully utilize existing resources to help our neighbors so they can age with dignity.

Many seniors find it increasingly difficult to manage housing costs such as property taxes and heating bills. Some face the danger of losing their homes.

The Legislature recognizes that property taxes hit Mainers on fixed incomes particularly hard. We boosted the Property Tax Fairness Credit and expanded eligibility to more renters. This credit replaces the “circuit breaker” program eliminated in the governor’s budget proposal. There is still work to be done on property tax relief, but the income tax credit can help low- and middle-income Mainers, particularly older than 65. Maine Revenue Services (626-8475) has more information.

Heating costs are also a serious financial challenge. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program administered by MaineHousing (624-5778) provides funds to defray heating costs. LIHEAP eligibility is expanded to 170 percent of federal poverty guidelines (currently $26,367 in annual income for a household of two) for those susceptible to hypothermia, including the elderly.

Another way to address the high cost of home heating is energy and weatherization upgrades. Efficiency Maine (866-376-2463) offers low-interest loans specifically to help Mainers pay for energy upgrades. Some homeowners save 50 percent or more on heating costs, and annual energy savings often exceed the cost of the monthly loan payments in the first year. With the possibility of significant long-term savings, it can pay to look into Efficiency Maine’s financing programs.

To combat the isolation seniors often face, Spectrum Generations (800-639-1553) offers programs such as Meals on Wheels. These programs help older Mainers remain in their homes safely and happily.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Senior Companion Program (581-3188) is another useful resource for seniors who are confined to their homes. Hospice Volunteers of Somerset County (474-7775), which provides important care and support to those with life-limiting illnesses, also serves clients in their own homes.

Central Maine’s lack of public transportation can be particularly problematic for those who are able to age in place. MaineCare, our state’s Medicaid program, offers transportation for its recipients to attend appointments with their health care professional. For other needs, Kennebec Valley Community Action Program runs a part-time public bus service called the Somerset Explorer. Its schedule and routes are available at www.kvcap.org or by calling 859-2501.

Health care, of course, is a common concern among seniors. Most are covered by Medicare, but MaineCare pays for the majority of nursing home beds in Maine. With inadequate MaineCare reimbursements, the nursing homes that care for so many aging Mainers have been chronically underfunded. This session, the Legislature passed a supplemental budget to address funding shortfalls, providing nursing homes with a total of $38 million in state and federal funding, as well as a separate measure to increase reimbursement rates annually.

These measures go a long way to addressing the challenges faced by aging Mainers and those who care for them, but we must do more.

Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and the Maine Council on Aging’s Blueprint for Action on Aging lays a strong foundation for continued efforts. The plan creates a collaborative vision for improving the lives of older Mainers and identifies specific strategies to make that vision a reality. The next Legislature will have an important opportunity to lead on the issues it outlines.

Maine faces many challenges for the future as our population ages. By anticipating these challenges, being proactive and working cooperatively, we can enhance the lives of seniors in our communities. We likely will have to think outside the box as we seek to improve our transportation system, our housing options and our long-term care options.

Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock, is a practicing family physician who represents Norridgewock, Solon and Madison. She serves on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.


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