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Study: Maine Seniors Poorer Than Those in New Hampshire, Vermont

A new study shows that Maine’s senior citizens are about as financially well off as their peers around the country — but by some measures, not doing as well as seniors in Vermont and New Hampshire.

And the report says that in parts of southern Maine, about half of senior citizens are living at or near the poverty line.

The study aims to create baseline data that can be used to measure future progress on the challenges of aging in Maine.

Two weeks ago, police found the body of Lucie McNulty, a Wells senior citizen who died at home more than two years ago, apparently without anyone noticing. Dana Totman, the CEO of Avesta Housing, which provides senior housing in Gorham, says McNulty’s fate is a lesson for the state.

“There are a lot of Maine citizens in need, and the level of that need is simply huge,” he says.

Avesta administers several hundred housing units. And the lower their cost, he says, the longer the waiting list to get in.

“Are there people like Lucie McNulty among the hundreds that are on our waiting list?” he says.

A new report by the Carsey School of Public Policy in New Hampshire aims to answer that question, and related questions, on a statewide level. It finds that almost 40 percent of Mainers who are 55 or older can be considered low-income or poor. That’s about even with seniors nationally, but a good 10 percentage points higher than in New Hampshire and Vermont.

“The population is aging across the nation, but Maine is really leading that trend with the highest median age, and it’s the state with the third largest share of the population 65 or older,” says Beth Mattingly, the project’s lead researcher. “So really, as goes Maine so goes the nation.”

Mattingly says some stark differences can be found in Maine seniors’ status depending on where they live.

“Maine seniors and especially renters pay a disproportionate share of their incomes for housing costs, and most indicators are relatively similar across the region,” she says. “But the pattern of Penobscot County as standing out as being a place where seniors are generally better off and southern Cumberland County being generally harder for seniors does seem to hold.”

In Penobscot County, which is home to Bangor, about 26 percent of seniors are poor or low-income, according to the report. But in southern Cumberland County — which includes Portland — the percentage of seniors in or near poverty is more than 50 percent.

Mattingly and others say more research is needed to figure out why that is. But Larry Gross, who directs the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, says in his 30 years there, things are worse than ever.

“It hasn’t been until the last year or so that I’ve heard of cases of people being referred to Meals on Wheels who are living in tents, who are living in cars, who are living in homeless shelters,” he says. “These are needs that really speak to, I think, the backing away from public policy from basic obligations that we have to meet the basic needs of our population.”

The study could help point the way for new investments. Tony Cipollone is CEO of the Gorman Foundation, which funded the research. He says the organization has a few goals for Maine’s seniors.

“Making sure they have a safe place to live, that they have access to nutritious meals, that they have transportation that takes them where they need to go, and that they have caring people to keep them company, and check up on them,” he says.

To that end, he says, the Foundation plans to give $900,000 to Maine groups that work with senior citizens — and target the spending toward needs identified in the report.