Walk into any store, restaurant or service facility in the St. John Valley and there’s a pretty good chance of hearing patrons conducting business or simply chatting in their native French.

Until 40 or so years ago, French was the first language for most folks born and raised in northern Maine from St. Francis east to Van Buren and Fort Kent south to Winterville. And while subsequent generations heard and spoke the language less thanks to public education policy dictating English-only classrooms, the French language has continued to be spoken with many of the area’s senior residents preferring it over English.

So when it comes to their health and long term care needs, area hospitals and care facilities want to make sure they have all their language bases covered.

“It can be pretty challenging,” said Nicole Marquis, associate director of nursing at Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent. “On the inpatient floor we do struggle a bit [because] there are hospitalists who do not speak French.”

Northern Maine Medical Center does what it can though. Marquis said the hospital employs numerous nurses and aids who do speak French and are always ready to step in and translate when needed.

“We also have a translation service that is accessible by phone or on the computer,” Marquis said. “And we are very lucky to have a lot of nurses who speak French and there are usually one or two on the floor at any given time who can help out.”

According to the most recent census data, 3.73 percent of Maine residents counted themselves as French-speaking. Those numbers shoot up in the St. John Valley, which borders with French-speaking New Brunswick.

Census data shows the percentage of French speaking residents to be 53.8 in Fort Kent; 66.6 in Madawaska; 59.8 in Van Buren; 79.3 in Frenchville; 44.4 in Eagle Lake; 68.3 in St. Agatha; 56.9 in Wallagrass; 47 in St. Francis; 64.2 in Grand Isle; 48.8 in New Canada; 46.6 in St. John Plantation and 59 in Cyr Plantation.

Brooke Saucier, activities director at Forest Hill Long Term Care and Nursing Facility in Fort Kent, estimates half of the facility’s 45 residents are more comfortable speaking their native French.

“It’s very important that we make sure their [language] needs are met,” Saucier said. “Communication is a huge thing [and] we need to make sure everyone is on the same page because if we don’t and the residents can’t understand us, they can feel isolated and we can’t provide the adequate care for them.”

Saucier said many of Forest Hill’s older nurses and staff speak French and are always willing to provide translation services when needed.

As much as possible, Saucier said, events and day-to-day activities are conducted in a bilingual setting.

“When we do our bingo we make sure everyone can understand,” she said. “We have our announcer read the numbers in English and then repeat everything in French.”

Open and accessible communication is a big part of making residents feel at home and comfortable, according to J.J. Roy, owner of two elderly care facilities in the St. John Valley.

“As far as importance, I’d say it’s a 10 out of 10,” Roy said. “Most of our staff speaks French and we really have not seen it being an issue.”

The Roy family operates Crosswinds Residential Care in Fort Kent and Ridgewood Estates in Madawaska.

“I’d say 75 or 80 percent of our staff is bilingual,” Roy said. “For the most part, if we do have anyone having a hard time communicating [in French] with a resident, there are plenty of people who can help translate.”

At the same time, Roy did say there are residents who have never spoken French and he said the staff makes sure they do not feel isolated in the middle of, what is to them, a foreign language.

“We do have a few people here from Florida or Tennessee or even southern Aroostook County who don’t speak French,” he said. “But it’s never an issue for them [because] the staff makes sure they are included in everything.”

Having bilingual health professionals on staff is what makes the difference for the older residents, according to Sandra Nadeau, social services director at Borderview Rehabilitation and Living Center in Van Buren.

“In this area we are heavily French speaking,” Nadeau said. “But it’s never really a problem here, especially since all of our charge nurses and most of the CNAs are French-English bilingual.”

There are times the regular Borderview staff is called in to assist in translating when visiting physicians are tending residents, Nadeau said.

“This way the residents are able to really voice their needs and wants more,” she said. “Not only that, it makes [the residents] feel more at ease when they can speak in their first language and that is so important to us and them.”

Marquis agrees.

“In our emergency room we have doctors who can speak French and for the ones who come in from away we have nurses who can translate,” Marquis said. “I can’t tell you what huge difference this makes for the peace of mind for the French speaking patients.”

As far as Roy is concerned, that level of comfort is the primary goal of his facilities.

“At the end of the day, being able to communicate easily and comfortably means everything,” he said.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.