A series of four roundtable discussions on aging was recently held in Augusta organized by Speaker of the House Mark Eves and supported by the Maine Council on Aging. Focusing on the rapid aging of Maine’s population, invited leaders in business, higher education, philanthropy and policy met to consider ways in which to promote the health of older adults while making Maine’s towns and communities more age friendly.

Rather than adopting a gloomy attitude, dwelling on the economic burden older adults and their mounting health care needs will place on our economy, participants were upbeat, hopeful and optimistic. While recognizing the challenges an aging Maine population places on the health care infrastructure and workforce needs, this diverse group of stakeholders brainstormed ways in which the large number of older Mainers could contribute to a stronger economy. Innovative models of housing, transportation, community services, education and employment were all considered in a refreshing and heartening discussion.

We believe that a bright economic future for Maine, the oldest state in the nation based on median age, can be realized by building on one of our greatest untapped natural resources: our older citizens.

Growing numbers of older adults want to stay active, and many want to work. Maine’s labor force participation for the population older than 65 is 16.4 percent. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation have recently proposed adding 12,000 adults who are 65 and older to our state’s labor force by 2020, bringing the participation rate to 19.3 percent (on par with New Hampshire) and representing a critical investment for the economy.

Additionally, we believe a series of mutually reinforcing principles need to be embraced if a healthy economy that builds on an aging citizenry is to be fully achieved.

1. The time has arrived to abandon a negative mentality that is preoccupied with old age deficits, needs and incapacity.

2. Embracing an aging Maine successfully requires buy-in from stakeholders throughout the state, including the business and volunteer services sector, government, higher education and research, and older adults themselves.

3. Our efforts need to center around creative, entrepreneurial approaches to face challenges associated with maintaining health and quality of life of older adults that remain sensitive to Maine culture and tradition.

4. We must break down the silos that keep disciplines, professions and other special interest-oriented groups from working together in addressing the challenges of an aging populace.

5. We need to always be mindful of maximizing lifestyle choices, alternatives and options for older adults and their families.

6. We need to remain person-centered and committed to a participatory philosophy, demanding that older adults be involved in all phases of product and services design, testing and rollout.

The University of Maine is committed to playing a major role in promoting such an agenda and serving as a leading player in this effort by mounting an organized, multidisciplinary research response to the state’s aging imperative.

Our efforts, in partnership with private businesses and industry, non-profit organizations, government agencies, private foundations and Maine citizens, need to focus on creating a research incubator that transcends the boundaries of traditional disciplines and professions, potentially integrating the social, health, physical, computational and biomedical sciences; engineering, economics, public policy, business, mathematics, and the arts and humanities.

As part of our Blue Sky Project, the University of Maine’s strategic plan, we are considering new opportunities to collaborate and form interdisciplinary teams to catalyze Maine’s renewal and include older Mainers. Potential outcomes could include the designing and testing of cutting-edge devices, products and services that will respond to the major challenges of growing old, offering educational opportunities that allow older Mainers to remain active in the workforce and developing cultural and artistic resources that enrich the lives of Maine’s aging population.

We thank Eves for organizing the roundtable discussions addressing aging issues. As Maine’s research university, in close collaboration with all sectors of the larger public, we can respond to the realities of an aging Maine with both an entrepreneurial spirit and a deep concern for citizen well-being, preserving health, enabling community engagement, encouraging productivity and maximizing independence among older Mainers.

Lenard W. Kaye is professor of social work and director of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week. Carol H. Kim is vice president for research at the University of Maine.