UMaine Center on Aging helps Bangor become more livable for seniors
When AARP announced last summer that Bangor would be named the 100th community in the country to earn “age-friendly” status, leaders in Maine’s third-largest city had to make a big commitment. To receive this distinction, a city must agree to devise a comprehensive strategy to become more livable for its oldest residents.
AARP had already done one survey on how well Bangor currently meets the needs of its seniors. But city leaders, including Patty Hamilton, felt they needed to dig deeper.
“I think the city wanted to be sure it gathered as much information as possible before embarking on this process,” says Hamilton, Bangor’s director of health and community services.
So Bangor began to solicit bids for a partner — an organization that could come in, run a series of focus groups with area seniors and write a report on its findings. The University of Maine’s Center on Aging submitted a proposal.
“Of the three applicants, they were the best fit and the most qualified to do the work,” says Hamilton.
A research team of six from the Center on Aging, including project manager David Wihry, graduate students and undergraduates began their work late last summer.
“We remain the only campus in the system that has a Center on Aging that’s devoted to the study, the research of issues of aging,” says Lenard Kaye, director of the center. “This is what we do.”
The team held seven community forums in the fall to gather feedback from seniors on how well Bangor is complying with the eight domains of livable communities, as defined by the World Health Organization that include outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information and community and health services. Attendees were also asked to fill out voluntary demographic forms.
Seventy-nine forms were submitted, according to the Center on Aging’s draft report on the community forums. The survey respondents averaged 70 years old and, on average, had lived in Bangor 34 years. A little over half of the respondents had incomes less than $60,000 a year. More than half of the respondents (59 percent) were women.
Overall, the draft report shows that Bangor has already made significant progress living up to its “age friendly” status, according to Kaye.
“We’re not starting from scratch here,” he says. “Bangor has pretty good grades on all counts. But it can do better. I think it knows that.”
On the question of outdoor spaces and buildings, popular public areas like the waterfront and the Bangor City Forest were widely praised in the community forums. But respondents had fewer kind words for the condition of downtown sidewalks.
“One thing I noticed when I first moved to Bangor is that people were walking in the street,” one forum attendee told the Center on Aging team. “It turns out they’re walking in the street because the street is so much smoother than the sidewalk. It’s a safety issue.”
Last fall, another UMaine project looked at benefits of making Bangor more walkable for all residents. As part of their coursework in ECO 405: Sustainable Energy Economics, a group of students gave a presentation on what could gained by becoming a more walkable city, as well as the steps needed to get there.
In a presentation to the Bangor City Council’s infrastructure committee, the students outlined the potential benefits and costs of two scenarios: creating 8 km of new bike lanes and launching a “Walk Bangor” campaign by placing 30 signs throughout the city. Their analysis found that taking these two steps could save residents money, bring local businesses more customers, improve home values by attracting more people to the city, increase social activities and make Bangor greener and less car dependent.
On the issue of transportation, the Center on Aging draft report notes that seniors who drive are generally comfortable doing so in Bangor. The Community Connector is viewed as a unique and valuable asset in the Bangor community, especially for people with limited transportation options. However, like transit in many rural areas, it has to grapple with the challenges of a smaller ridership base, a car owning culture, and rural geography, which make expansion of routes and hours of operation more challenging.
The draft report highlights the many opportunities that seniors have for cultural engagement and entertainment in Bangor, including art exhibits, Penobscot Theatre, free summer concerts and movie showings downtown. But it also notes that the 2015 closing of the Hammond Street Senior Center was a major loss for the community.
“There’s nothing yet to fully replace it,” says Kaye. “That message came through loud and clear: Older adults want an intergenerational community that they can benefit from, where they can interact with folks of all ages.”
Kaye says the feedback on health care at the community forums was overwhelmingly positive. One respondent, who had also lived in Boston, Cleveland and Chicago, told the research team they had been able to find better medical care in Bangor.
Housing, though, was a major concern, with forum attendees reporting that Bangor has a critical shortage of affordable options for seniors on limited incomes, who don’t meet the requirements to receive federal subsidies.
“This is a statewide issue,” says Kaye. “It’s just a fact of life. We have beautiful assisted- living communities. But you and I probably can’t afford to live in them.”
Kaye says the Center on Aging is committed to working with Bangor and its citizens, pro bono, to figure out how to prioritize the many suggestions made in the report. The availability of public and private funds will likely determine how quickly Bangor can do things like build a new senior center or single-story multipurpose health facility, hire a volunteer coordinator, expand bus service or fix crumbling sidewalks.
Meetings of the Bangor Livable Communities Committee are open to the public. For more information contact Dyan Walsh, firstname.lastname@example.org, 941.2865; or Patty Hamilton email@example.com, 992.4550.
Contact: Jay Field, 207.581.3721; 207.338.8068