There is no disputing that the face of Maine is changing. We are living in the oldest state in the country. Nearly 211,000 Mainers are age 65 and older, and this number will more than double by 2020. It is estimated that by 2030, a quarter of Mainers will be age 65 or older. Eighty percent of seniors own their own homes, and nearly a third live on Social Security as their only source of income — an average of just less than $14,000 per year. For many Maine seniors, their homes are their only asset — their retirement plan.

Unfortunately, Maine also happens to have one of the oldest housing stocks in the country, which means that many Maine seniors are living in inefficient older homes that they cannot afford to maintain. Considering this past winter, there is no doubt that there were many seniors — our neighbors — in all 16 counties who were forced to make the choice between eating and heating.

Mainers want to age at home, but to do this depends on their ability to afford to maintain their homes. Unfortunately, too many struggle on a daily basis just to buy food, heat their homes, fill their gas tanks and pay for medications. They do not have extra resources to keep up with home maintenance and repair. The result is that many are living in homes that are unsafe and inefficient.

But LD 249, “An Act to Enable Seniors to Remain in Their Homes,” offers some hope for relief. This bill establishes the Home Weatherization and Repair for Seniors Program and an associated fund. This bill allocates $750,000 out of the General Fund to provide housing improvements to low-income Maine seniors. Such renovations would reduce maintenance and heating costs. Fortunately, an infrastructure to identify the need and distribute the funds appropriately already exists.

The Maine Community Action network, which comprises all 10 community action programs across Maine, developed the Keeping Seniors Home program in 2004. Keeping Seniors Home assists low-income seniors by making improvements to their houses that allow them to continue to live at home safely.

Over the last 10 years, Keeping Seniors Home has helped more than 3,000 seniors make improvements to their homes. Common repairs include handicapped accessibility, building wheelchair ramps, installing higher toilets and rails in bathrooms, and weatherization to reduce heating costs. Even seemingly minor renovations can result in significant reductions in utility bills, enabling seniors to put the savings toward daily living essentials. Each year, community action program agencies assist between 150 and 200 families.

Over the years, the Keeping Seniors Home program has been stitched together with a variety of funding sources. Unfortunately, the program is becoming threadbare because of the rising demand, even as it is already overburdened. The greatest need for Keeping Seniors Home is a source of consistent funding. LD 249 would add $750,000 to help this cause. With the increased funding, it is estimated that Keeping Seniors Home could serve around 300 units per year.

This is a far less expensive option than moving an individual to long-term care in an assisted living facility or a nursing home. Every day a senior remains at home, $140 per day per person are saved in tax dollars. Considering that one in five seniors over the age of 70 is eligible for nursing home care, the cost savings are staggering. Extending a senior’s ability to remain at home as they age is the most cost-effective public investment.

A similar bill was proposed in the previous legislative session and was denied funding by the Appropriations Committee. Luckily, we have been offered another chance; the bill has passed both the House and Senate and again awaits its fate before Appropriations.

This is a benefit to Maine’s seniors, to taxpayers, and to communities at large. It also is an investment in our own future, as none of us is getting any younger. If we act now, we can help our elders have an opportunity to age with dignity.

Amy Tunney is a graduate student in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. She recently completed a graduate internship with At Home Downeast, which is dedicated to supporting residents of the Blue Hill Peninsula to remain safely and comfortably at home as they age.