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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Aroostook Agency on Aging received an $88,895 federal grant that will fund new services to combat social isolation in a population that is among the oldest in Maine.

Social isolation is a real problem in The County that has only increased since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Maine in March, Judy Anderson, director of community and volunteer services at the Aroostook Agency on Aging, said.

Aroostook County residents face unique issues that can cause social isolation, Anderson said. For example, many do not have access to reliable internet connections.

Approximately 25 percent of County residents are older than 65, much higher than the percentage in Maine overall at 21 percent and the United States at 17 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

The new programs are designed to increase independence and decrease social isolation for older residents across Aroostook County. The funding comes from the National Community Care Corps, a recently created federal program that connects volunteers to older adults and those with disabilities.

The Aroostook Agency on Aging was one of only 23 groups chosen nationwide.

While the agency has seen rises in social isolation reports from older residents, the pandemic has also required it to alter operations to avoid spreading the virus. It has closed its congregate meal site and has begun performing more services virtually.

“We are social creatures. We need to be in contact with others,” Anderson said. “Just as a virus can kill, social isolation can kill as well.”

Anderson said she knew that the grant’s specifications lined up with her organization’s goals as soon as she saw it posted in February.

The agency will use the funds to hire a full-time employee to coordinate three volunteer-staffed programs: Friendly Visitor, Friendly Neighbor and Friendly Helpers.

Friendly Visitor will address social isolation by sending volunteers to the homes of older members of the community. The visits will be suited to each older individual — some may want someone to talk to, while others prefer playing games — Anderson said.

The goal of Friendly Helpers is to allow older adults to live independently by sending volunteers to assist them with minor home repairs that may be physically difficult, such as changing a lightbulb, cleaning a gutter or cutting tree branches down.

Friendly Neighbor will create points of contact in each community that will connect older residents to other services. Anderson said community members could reach out to that contact if they were worried about the well-being of an older person they knew, such as a neighbor.

The agency plans to use the first year of funding to form a demonstration model, after which it can apply for four more years of grants for the same amount.

Anderson said she is in the process of hiring a coordinator that will oversee the programs and recruit volunteers across The County. Volunteers must be older than 18 and pass a background check to participate.

“We are very excited to bring these services to Aroostook County,” Anderson said. “There’s a great need, and we have generous people who live in Aroostook. Our volunteers go over and above.”

Aroostook Agency received support from other major service groups in The County including United Way of Aroostook, Catholic Charities of Maine and Aroostook County Administrator Ryan Pelletier, who all sent letters to go with the grant application.

A total of 186 groups from 46 states applied for the series of grants from the National Community Care Corps, which receives funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is administered by four national non-profits.