According to AARP, the advocacy organization for older Americans, most seniors want to stay in their homes as they age. But they often need help to maintain their home and stay connected to their community.
As some municipalities make a concerted effort to be designated as “age friendly,” two Maine communities are teaming up to make “aging in place” a possibility for older residents.
This story is part five of our series “In This Life.”
Driving through downtown Richmond, Peter Warner and Dave Thompson don’t get far without passing by a house of a senior they’ve helped.
“This house here is where we helped with furniture and door locks, helped to move his furniture around so he could get around his house. He’s on oxygen all the time, and was having a hard time,” Warner says.
He and Thompson, both in their 60s, are part of the Village Lodge Handy Brigade, a group formed by the local Masons that does minor repair jobs and chores free of charge for seniors in Richmond and neighboring Bowdoinham.
It started about a year ago, after one member helped a senior with a small project. Warner decided to develop into a program to help other in the community who need it.
“That aren’t necessarily big jobs, the whole-day jobs, but might be something simple that a handy man might have to charge them $50 or $100 to do, but we could just help them out,” he says. “It has been things like putting a hasp on a door to keep it from flying open.”
Or installing storm windows, or carbon monoxide detectors. After spreading the word through the local senior’s group, Warner says the Handy Brigade has assisted about 30 households.
Warner and Thompson have come to the home of the Ragsdales in Richmond to do some work on the bathrooms. They knock, but the couple isn’t home right now.
Geoff Ragsdale, 78, is currently in rehab, recovering from a medical issue that left him temporarily unable to walk and talk. He’s due to return home tomorrow, and Thompson says the bathrooms need adjustments.
“We’re taking the shower head off and installing a wand hose. This will be able to switch so they can use it for him, and then when she takes a shower, she can stand up,” he says.
“He’s unable to stand, so he needs the wand on the shower,” Warner says.
After testing the wand for leaks, they apply grip tape on the side of the shower, then head to another bathroom to prepare it for the installation of a grab bar. Within 30 minutes, they’re done.
And that means Geoff Ragsdale can come home.
“These guys are a blessing in disguise for anyone who needs their service,” Ragsdale says, sitting at his kitchen table a week later.
Without the Handy Brigade, he thinks it would have cost a few hundred dollars to hire someone to do the work, which his wife, Nancy, says they can’t afford.
“Right now, we’re retirees and we live off our Social Security. And you can’t go very far with that even. You have to plan different things. You can’t just go out and spend like you’d like to,” she says.
It’s small efforts like the Handy Brigade that make a big difference in helping seniors like the Ragsdales stay in their homes, even though they are reluctant to seek favors.
“If there’s anything out there we need, it’s there. All we have to do is ask, and we’re not one of those people,” Nancy says. “I don’t like to ask. I’ve always done it on my own.”
The Ragsdales are active in their church. Nancy used to work as a caregiver for seniors in their homes. Before Geoff landed in the hospital, he volunteered at the food pantry, for Meals on Wheels, and gave rides to other seniors.
“It’s a community where people care about each other. They’ve got a strong church ethic in the town, as well as neighbor helping neighbor. And that’s basically what helps the senior population,” says Laurie Saunders, director of the Golden Oldies Senior Center in Richmond.
Saunders says there are many models for making communities age-friendly, but Bowdoinham and Richmond have found a way to work with existing organizations to provide things like the Handy Brigade, a ride program, exercise classes, and social meet-ups.
In fact, Bowdoinham is one of the nearly 30 AARP-designated “Age Friendly Communities” in Maine, the most of any state in the country. Bowdoinham was also elected by the World Health Organization in 2014 to help develop age-friendly community indicators.
Saunders says these two communities have had success in part because they cultivate local volunteers, many of them seniors, to help people age in place.
“It’s their comfort zone, and to take them out of that, or have to remove them from that, I think is a burden to them as well as their families, and the community as a whole. It doesn’t matter how old you are in a community, you still have something to offer,” she says.
Geoff Ragsdale is eager to get back to volunteering as soon as he’s able. And he and Nancy are happy that he could return to his home to recover, worry-free, after help from the Village Lodge Handy Brigade.
Maine Public Radio’s series “In This Life” is made possible by a grant from the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.