Dr Dan Onion joins me in an Aging In Place column

Dan: George, I know from your recent columns that you are very interested in “aging-in-place” issues for both personal and public reasons. I’d like to hear a little more about why and how because as the health officer for both your and my adjacent towns and a boarded geriatric physician, I too have been working on ways to help seniors stay here in their homes and among their friends and acquaintances. Tell me what you’ve been doing.

George: Our rural communities are full of old folks, so that is a new and important focus for many of us, including those of us working on a new comprehensive plan for Mount Vernon. A group of Mount Vernon residents recently formed a committee to work on initiatives for the elderly. Townspeople appropriated $1000 at the June town meeting for this new initiative. A few of us attended an AARP seminar on their programs for the elderly and were very impressed. Mount Vernon will be applying to join the AARP project soon. 200 towns are already participating in the AARP initiative that is called Building an Age-Friendly Community.

Dan: I’ve been working for the past 3 ½ years to establish a volunteer transportation system in our 2 towns and 3 contiguous ones. Four years ago, Sandy Wright and I happened to have coffee together at the Mt Vernon community center, where she told me that transportation solutions for seniors, who had had to retire from driving were the number one concern of a senior gathering at the local school. From there, she and I recruited a group of interested townsfolk, studied the issue, did some surveys of our seniors, and obtained a Maine Community Foundation 1-year planning grant. That grant let us pull together some focus groups to define the problem and explore some possible solutions, as well as hire Jo Cooper and a colleague from Ellsworth to consult with us about our plan. Jo has been a running service there for nearly 20 years. And, by the way, you probably know her brother Matt Dunlap, the secretary of state, who thereby is in charge of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Having served as chair of the BMV medical advisory committee for 5 years in the recent past, I know how interested they are in finding ways to help those whose health requires them to retire from driving themselves.

Out of that planning arose Neighbors Driving Neighbors, our 5-town volunteer driving service, which has now, after 2 ½ years has given over 1000 rides to local residents, mostly seniors who can no longer drive. Starting with about 20 drivers, we now have over 45 volunteer drivers. A couple startup grants from the Bingham Betterment Fund and the Bingham Program got us going and we now seem able to survive with donations and charitable contributions from individuals and local businesses. Two part-time, very modestly paid local contracted coordinators field the ride requests and find driver matches. We are now giving about 40 rides a month, and last summer gave over 60. Initially most rides were for medical appointments, but we’ve been able to grow the percentage for other social activities up to nearly 50%.  Both are important, we think.

George: Neighbors Driving Neighbors is a great project, and I thank all who are participating, especially you and Sandy. And yes, Matt Dunlap is a good friend of mine. AARP offers community challenge grants to create vibrant public places, and we hope to get a grant for our library, where we hope the addition will become just that – a vibrant public place – for all members of our towns, from kids to senior citizens.

Dan: I never realized, until I got old myself, how complicated it is to plan for contingencies. When will I need driving help, when with housecleaning, when with plowing, when with meals, can I stay in my house, etc. And how do I keep up with friends and find new ones as others pass on or move away. I admire your planning and think your example and explicit reporting are helpful to many. In the old days, and occasionally still, multiple generations living in the same or nearby houses and made all these choices much easier, but such arrangements are getting rarer, with smaller families and adult children having to move out of state to find work. Strong, innovative communities seem to find a way to broaden support beyond immediate family members, as I see with Neighbors Driving Neighbors. Ours is one such community to be proud of.

George: One project that we need to tackle comes from the Red Cross. A local volunteer comes to your home to check on your smoke detectors, and they replace them if that is needed.  Both Wayne and Readfield participate in AARP’s program. I have friends who volunteer for Readfield’s Handy Helpers project, ready to help with things like moving furniture or taking things down from high shelves. With my illness of ALS, I must say it is wonderful to live in such a caring community, where many have volunteered to help Linda and me whenever we need help. Four friends came all winter to help Linda shovel. We are blessed.




George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.