BETHEL — When Maine communities were offered an opportunity to join AARP’s age-friendly movement, Bethel — and its satellite villages — were among the first to get on board.

That was in 2015, and now Oxford County boasts the largest number in the region: nine of the 18 cities and towns that have signed on, from Bowdoinham to Fryeburg.

It’s no surprise to Patricia Oh, program manager of the Maine Center on Aging and the age-friendly liaison with AARP Livable/Maine.

“Because (Oxford County towns) are a little bit away from the beaten path, residents are used to forming volunteer groups to address challenges that help build community,” Oh said in a recent phone interview.

The age-friendly movement embraces a broad number of definitions, she said. Each town’s focus is different based on its needs, but the overarching goal is to make it easier for people to age in place.

The only common requirement is that a municipality must commit to including “an aging lens” in its community and economic development, Oh said.

Some have advocated for better internet service and have written grants to put computer tablets in the hands of older people, she said. Others have focused on social engagement, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Bethel area — comprising Bethel, Gilead, Greenwood, Hanover, Newry and Woodstock — the issue is transportation, said Nancy Davis, president of the Bethel Area Age-Friendly Community Initiative.

“In a nutshell, we sponsored a survey in 2015, asking, ‘What are your biggest concerns about growing older in this community?’ No. 1 was transportation,” Davis said.

Core leaders of the initiative “immediately” began putting together options, she said.

They created a “Neighbor to Neighbor” volunteer driver program, free to residents of the six towns who need rides to medical appointments, movies, church, shopping or senior college classes, among other things, she said.

People can call an answering service if they need a ride and they are matched with a driver.

“We almost never, ever have a problem finding drivers,” Davis said. They are fully vetted and must be vaccinated against COVID-19, she said.

“The greatest commendation was from families of older people who had to take time off work to take relatives places,” she said. “It’s a huge boon to that generation.”

Other projects have included accommodations at the local movie theater for people who are hard of hearing, a program through which students help older people with technology and a collaboration with the local high school that offers students to do chores such as stacking wood, Davis said.

That “major program” has been on hold because of the pandemic but is slowly coming back, she said.

The initiative works collaboratively with other community groups, including the West Parish Congregational Church and Bethel Area Arts and Music.

These groups are involved in an ongoing project to build and paint picnic tables and benches that will be placed in all six area towns.

Men from the church volunteered to build the furniture, which was to be painted by the arts group Saturday. The supplies were paid for through a grant.

The other age-friendly towns in Oxford County are Fryeburg, Hartford and Paris. Regionwide, the towns of Auburn, Bath, Bowdoinham, Freeport, Gray, Mount Vernon, Pownal, Raymond and Wayne are deemed age-friendly. Statewide, there are more than 100.

Maine is one of only eight age-friendly states in the country. The others are New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and California.

When Gov. Janet Mills announced in 2019 that Maine had joined the movement, it was the sixth in the nation.

At the state level, the Office of Aging and Disability is working with multiple departments to include the aging lens, Oh said.

That involves reaching out to groups to see how the state can be supportive, she said. “For example, aging farmers. What is it that we need to change” to allow them to stay in their communities.

Oh prefers “livable” or “age-inclusive” to age-friendly because “when you hear age-friendly, it sounds like it’s only good for people at one end of the age spectrum,” she said. “But if it’s a good place at 90, that also makes it good if you’re 2, 20 or 40.”

Maine is the oldest state in the union, with residents 60 and older making up nearly a third of the population, so it makes sense that it has been at the forefront of the movement, Oh said.

“Everyone asks me, ‘Why Maine?’ We’re innovators. People born here and those who come here expect to be active in the community.”


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