Age-Friendly Bowdoinham, Maine
A look at what the very small town (population less than 3,000) has achieved since joining the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities
ACTIVITIES AS OF MARCH 2021
The town of Bowdoinham, Maine, located about 30 miles northeast of Portland, is home to 2,889 people, almost 20 percent of whom are age 60 or older. It’s expected that by 2030, people 60-plus will account for 30 percent of Bowdoinham’s residents.
Initiative Name: Age-Friendly Bowdoinham, Maine
Network Member Since: 2015
Government Type: An appointed town manager acts as the chief executive and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the town government
Reason(s) for Joining: In 2015, the Bowdoinham select board chair wrote to AARP Maine saying her town wanted to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities in order “to take advantage of the technical support offered… and to participate in the exchange of information with other communities.” She added that the network would provide valuable assistance in developing programs to “support the desire of older residents to age in the community safely as fully-participating citizens.”
Local Leadership: Bowdoinham’s age-friendly initiative is currently led by Mason Griffin, the recreation director and older adult services coordinator for the Town of Bowdoinham. He is assisted by the Bowdoinham Advisory Committee on Aging.
The Financials: Funding for Bowdoinham’s age-friendly work comes from various sources including grants for special projects and community donations. For instance, proceeds from a car show that was sponsored by The Town Landing (Bowdoinham’s only restaurant, which closed in 2019) went to the initiative, which receives just $500 a year from the municipal budget.
Getting Started: Bowdoinham developed its Age-Friendly Action Plan in 2017.
Actions and Achievements
The town submitted an Action Plan Progress Report in 2020. The steps taken thus far include the following:
One of the town’s most popular and successful programs is the Wellness Fair. The idea came about at the suggestion of a committee member. “Holding a wellness fair was just one of the things on my bucket list,” says Kathy Pszczolkowski, who has spent her career teaching health, physical education and aquatics.
Every activity at the fair is free. Among the attractions are specialists in fitness, emergency preparedness, kids’ recreation, 12-step programs and physical therapy. Demonstrations include lessons on how to safely get up from the floor after a fall and dance training from George Oliver, a locally-famous amateur chef and, according to many, “line dancer extraordinaire.”
“The Wellness Fair is like a tree, with all these branches sprouting.”
— Kathy Pszczolkowski
The table that attracts the most visitors is the one offering free flu shots. Almost as popular is one staffed by students from the University of New England who distribute vouchers good for an exam at the college’s dental clinic.
“Dentists cost a lot of money and are seen as ‘extra,'" notes Patricia Oh, a Bowdoinham resident, AARP consultant and age-friendly specialist with the University of Maine. “Many people here feel they don’t really need a dentist. One of the women at the fair hadn’t been to a dentist in 50 years. She ended up getting a lot of work done at the clinic and all her needs were met. The students said it was amazing to talk to people who hadn’t been to a dentist in decades. It made them feel needed, wanted and engaged.”
What Pszczolkowski loves about the fair is the spontaneous intermingling of ideas and brainstorming among neighbors — and the offshoot programs the conversations lead to. “The Wellness Fair is like a tree, with all these branches sprouting," she says.
Oh says the fair fills a need that is often unmet in small, rural towns — including Bowdoinham. “Some folks don’t want to go over a bridge. It’s the sense of, ‘If I can’t get the service locally, I’m not going to get it,’” she says, referring to the route to nearby Brunswick, where services can be found. “It’s wonderful seeing people get the care they need.”
Masons to the Rescue
When a Bowdoinham resident needed a contractor to build a ramp, she asked around for recommendations. The contractor she chose started the work but $20,000 later, she still didn't have a ramp.
When a Mason at Bowdoinham’s Village Lodge heard the story, he was outraged. So he got his brother Masons together and they built the ramp.
Shortly after, Oh recalls, that Mason called her to say the lodge members wanted to do something for the town and asked if she thought there was a need for minor home repairs. “Do I think there’s a need?” Oh responded, flummoxed by his understatement.
The Village Lodge Handy Brigade’s mission statement is to provide help with simple home repair and home maintenance chores that can improve the quality of life of older residents. Its work includes replacing furnace filters to installing air conditioners to hanging pictures and hauling trash. The Masons actually emphasize that they actually like to change light bulbs because they don’t want older people taking risks by climbing ladders.
Even though the men are known to most residents, “we realized that some of the older women were going to be a bit uncomfortable about having men coming into their homes,” Oh says. “So the Masons bring their wives along.”
The people who receive services are encouraged to pay for what they need if they can. If they can’t pay, that’s fine.
Another service provided by the Masons involves the Elevated Bed Garden Project, which was paid for by an AARP Community Challenge grant. Initiated by Joanne Savoie, the brigade builds and then installs raised-bed planters. The recipients of the elevated gardens started the Not Your Mother’s Garden Club. Members stay in touch by email and Facebook, sharing gardening tips and photos of their plants.
Neighbor Helping Neighbor
Rides in Neighbors Cars provides free door-to-door service to residents age 60 or older and people with a disability who cannot drive or don’t own a vehicle. Most rides are to medical appointments, errands, shopping and social visits to family or friends.
When Diana Mosher, then a member of the town’s Advisory Committee on Aging (ACOA), took over the ride-providing program, her first challenge was simply organizing it. When someone needed a ride, he or she would call Mosher and she in turn would call volunteers until she found one who was available. Discovering a website she could use to connect requests with available volunteers was a game changer. And then COVID-19 hit.
Providing Help During COVID
“During the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, our main concern was access to food and medication. After that, we focused on identifying residents who have unmet needs [and] that don't typically raise their hands to ask for help and to find a way for people to remain socially connected.”
— Patricia Oh, as quoted in the AARP article “Age-Friendly Bowdoinham, Maine, and COVID-19”
“Right away we decided we would stay open but only drive people to medical appointments, do their food shopping and pick up prescriptions,” says Mosher. “Several of us felt uncomfortable doing any rides with people. Those of us who were comfortable outfitted our cars to make the riders safe — and we insisted on masks.” Soon the drivers were mainly doing food deliveries.
Patricia Oh describes how Rides in Neighbors Cars got its start.
“We started to realize how hard it was becoming to get people to show up for social events. Some older residents were choosing to give up their keys while others who really needed to do so were still driving,” Oh explains. “Getting around was a challenge for all of them as Bowdoinham doesn’t have public transportation. When the program started, it was mainly so residents could participate in social events or do some errands.”
The original Rides in Neighbors Cars pitch: "‘If you want to go meet your friends for a cup of coffee, or if you want to take your cat or dog to the vet, or if you need a haircut, or shopping, we'll give you a ride.’ It was very much a neighbor-helping-neighbor approach.”
The program soon transitioned into meeting medical-visit requests, some of which were quite complicated. Mosher recalls a man who needed a round-trip ride to dialysis on Saturdays, which necessitated two volunteers, one to drive the rider to the hospital and one to pick him up. Extra care during the ride home was needed due to his weakened condition.
For some residents, Rides in Neighbors Cars has enabled them to remain in Bowdoinham. “We have a man in town with significant vision problems. He couldn't continue to live in town if he didn't have the service,” says Oh. “We've also had folks who needed rides to cancer treatments. Family members can't always provide those rides all the time.”
Mosher adds that “the work is very rewarding and fulfilling. And by speaking with the drivers, the riders feel less isolated.”
The Handy Tools Display
Bowdoinham residents pose with the original (ca. 2015) version of the tools display. Learn more by reading the AARP article “How to Create a Handy Tools Display.”
Handy Household Tools
In 2015, AARP Livable Communities published an article about Bowdoinham’s tool table, a specially-designed display exhibiting household, personal care and automotive gadgets, utensils and hardware that can make tasks of daily living easier for older adults.
Included were a one-touch can opener, a talking clock and no-tie elastic shoe laces. Oh helped create the initiative, which has since added more tools and users.
“The tool table is now on regular display at the Bowdoinham Public Library, even during COVID, for residents to learn about and borrow tools for up to three weeks," says Oh. “We've inspired several neighboring communities to create their own tool tables."
New tools are added in response to the community’s needs. For instance, a woman with difficulty hearing had a fire in her home and couldn’t hear the smoke alarm.
“Fortunately, neighbors saw smoke and called the fire department,” Oh says. “We’ve since invested in all kinds of fire alert devices that can help a person who is hard of hearing. Sometimes we just don’t know what we need until somebody needs it.”
When Small Is Big
Patricia Oh cites instances when Bowdoinham's Advisory Committee on Aging advocated for seemingly “small things” that are anything but small to the residents who need them.
For example, at the post office, drivers had to get out of their cars to drop letters in the mailbox. The committee successfully advocated turning the mailbox around so drivers could remain in their cars when dropping mail in the slot.
The same thing occurred at the library book drop, which was located at the top of a set of stairs. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if the drop box was at the bottom?” residents often commented. The committee took the request to the town manager, who presented it to the community’s select board. The request was green-lighted.
For many years, the parking area at the Celebrate Bowdoinham festival was located on the opposite side of a fairly busy road. The ACOA successfully advocated for a drop off in front of the event, as well as placing chairs to be placed there for people to use while waiting for a ride.
“People in rural communities don’t ask for the Taj Mahal. They ask for things that help everybody be as actively engaged as possible in the community so everybody feels valued and wanted.” — Patricia Oh
“The ACOA listens to the concerns that come directly from citizens,” says Oh, who tells the story of a balance class hosted in the town office building. An accessibility audit of the building identified obstacles, including a cluttered hallway, a doorbell that didn’t work and a burned out lightbulb.
“These were not big things. People in rural communities don’t ask for the Taj Mahal,” says Oh. “They ask for things that help everybody be as actively engaged as possible in the community so everybody feels valued and wanted.”
Oh adds that “the Bowdoinham town manager said everyone in town thought he walked on water when he assigned the Public Works Department to add a railing in the middle of the stairs to the library and bring the book return box down to ground level. Small changes make a huge impact and build trust with the community that age-friendly efforts benefit everyone. Without those small changes, the community can't trust us to make bigger changes.”
Lessons Learned (and Advice for Others)
Patricia Oh offers up the following recommendations:
“Always be mindful of people with different ability levels. You don’t want an initiative that is focused on only the oldest people or one only geared to people who are climbing mountains every week. You have to find that sweet spot where you’re meeting the levels of ability of people as they age. This also pertains to inclusivity in inviting representatives from all facets of the community so you have people of different races, economic and educational levels, sexual orientations, religions and physical abilities.”
Listen to Your Community
“You are never going to have an initiative that will take off in the community if you don’t listen to what your community wants and how it prefers changes to be made. For example, my community wants changes to be made in very small steps. Don’t rush things. That may mean it will take 20 years to get a stoplight!”
“Connect with as many services and businesses and even tiny social clubs as possible, but start local. We quickly turned down help from groups and providers that were regional. We really wanted that local context. A regional representative doesn’t understand how our community wants a change to be made. Build the strong local base, and only then reach out to regional providers who may have funding or other assistance they can offer to support the local work.”
Expect and Address Challenges
“The biggest challenge is when there is a change in administration. Our age-friendly work is an all-volunteer effort, and whenever you have volunteers, there are going to be changes. So you have a leader who gets things started, but then there’s a rotation of people on the committee and now no one has that historical knowledge.
“An ongoing problem small rural communities in Maine and everywhere face is the lack of high-speed internet. We faced that when trying to get the word out about the Wellness Fair. So many people we’ve wanted to reach don’t have internet service or computers or a cell phone. Sometimes publicity is our biggest challenge.
“A situation common to small, rural towns throughout Maine is that anyone not born and bred in the state is said to come 'from away.' In the 1970s, several people from out of state moved to Maine and began a new life here as homesteaders, or ‘Back to Earthers' or 'Back to Landers.’ This was a challenge to the old-timers, the people who grew up here and lived here 40 or 50 years. There was a lot of mistrust because the initiative had been started by people who came from away. Decades later they’re still considered from away. But this community wouldn’t be what it is without those people.
"Always remember that communities have people of different economic levels, educational levels and types of experience. That’s a big challenge for a rural community. That’s where the cities have us beat. People in cities think about diversity. Rural communities don’t think about it as much.”
- Read "Bowdoinham, Maine, Adapts to COVID-19"
- Visit AARP Maine
- Learn about the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities
- Check out the network's Member List
- Find more Age-Friendly Member Impact and Achievement Profiles
Reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner
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