Most seniors want to live in their homes or communities for as long as possible, or, “age in place.” As outfitting homes and carrying out maintenance gets more costly, local volunteer organizations are stepping up to help.
Around 75 percent of adults aged 50 or older indicated they’d like to age in place, according to a 2021 AARP survey. That figure is national, but Noël Bonam, Maine’s AARP director, said it captures how Maine’s seniors feel, too.
“I think we all want to stay in our homes and communities … that’s where people have a sense of belonging, a sense of community, where their family and friends might be, familiarity, a sense of independence,” said Elizabeth Gattine, who coordinates the state’s Cabinet on Aging.
Much of the focus around Maine’s housing crisis has been on first-time homeowners trying to enter the housing market, but it’s also become increasingly difficult for older residents to age in place, whether that means staying in a home they’ve owned for decades or renting in the communities they’ve become familiar with.
That’s what May Mongue wanted as she got older, to be near family and feel a part of a community. The 72-year-old has lived in southern Maine since 1973, and worked for 38 years as an educator and 12 years as a paralegal in Cumberland and York counties.
In the past, Mongue owned homes in Kennebunk. Now, she rents an affordable housing unit in Saco managed by Avesta Housing. The unit is near to her youngest son who works in the city, but finding it was “a bit of a trial,” Mongue said.
“I was on a waitlist for [this apartment] about two years,” Mongue said. “I was homeless for four months, couch surfing.”
Rents are climbing in Cumberland and York counties. Someone like Mongue, a single renter with chronic health issues, can expect to pay more than $2,500 in monthly expenses to live in those counties, according to UMass’ Elder Index.
Because many older renters live on a fixed income — like Mongue, who lives on social security and her pension — they tend to be more rent-burdened than younger renters, Bonam said.
“This leaves very little money for other necessities, such as food and health care,” Bonam said.
For older homeowners, on top of the cost of living, there’s the cost of home maintenance, too. Maine’s housing stock is old, Elizabeth Gattine pointed out, meaning that seniors who want to stay in their generational homes have to deal with near-constant home repairs. They might need to modify those properties to make them more accessible as they get older, too, she said.
Around a third of the respondents to that 2021 AARP survey said that in order to age in place, they might need to make changes to their home like modifying a bathroom or installing a ramp. And small home repair jobs are also getting pricier because of the climbing costs of materials and a shortage of laborers.
Remodeling a bathroom to include accessibility accommodations like grab bars and handrails can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Alpha One architect Jill Johanning said earlier this week.
To help older renters like Mongue and senior homeowners continue to live independently where they are, a number of age-friendly “Lifelong” communities sponsored by the AARP have popped up around Maine. Forty-something of those communities offer home repair programs.
“We have [more than 2,000] volunteers who will come in to do things such as install grab bars, install smoke or CO2 detectors, change light bulbs, move furniture, repair screen doors … and they will also connect families with any subsidies they might be eligible for,” Karen Campbell, a program coordinator for Maine’s Lifelong communities, said this week.
Though Mongue has no need for home repairs — Avesta would handle any needed modifications — she took advantage of an age-friendly program offering technological assistance.
Volunteers installed an Amazon Echo Dot virtual assistant in Mongue’s home this week for free. It assists her with basic tasks like setting her alarms and giving her reminders. It also helps her stay connected to her family.
Volunteer David Steed said he’s installed more than 60 of these Dots for seniors around Saco, and they love them. He can also install local dispatch numbers to the devices so emergency services can be dialed quickly and easily.
What she’s most excited to use the Dot for, Mongue said, is to have it turn on the lights before she gets home so she feels safe returning at night. She also likes to lie back on her couch, she said, and ask the Dot what the temperature is in cities all over the world.
“I love it here,” Mongue said Tuesday, settling in on her well-worn couch. It was an arduous process to age in place, but she’s made it work. And now she’s happy to stay put.