Three initiatives aimed at improving health of the county

By Stuart Hedstrom 
Staff Writer

    DOVER-FOXCROFT — The Maine Health Access Foundation awarded near year-long grants in late November 2013 to both the Charlotte White Center and Piscataquis Regional YMCA, through the Thriving in Place (TIP) Across the Continuum of Care and Healthy Communities program respectively, which both are aimed at the improving the lives of residents of Piscataquis County. An even longer running project is the Maine Highlands Senior Center at Central Hall on East Main Street, and all three initiatives were the subject of a meeting attended by municipal officials and others from across the region on the morning of Sept, 23 at the Morton Avenue Municipal Building.

    “As municipal officials, it seems like we have a lot of things to talk about,” Dover-Foxcroft Town Manager Jack Clukey said at the start of the presentation. He said the community’s health is not always at the forefront of concerns, “but it is pervasive in everything we do.”
    “We really have a focus with our demographics getting older,” Clukey said, using the term “the gray tsunami” to describe the increasing number of senior citizens and the resulting impact this will have. He said one way to help manage the rise in the elderly population is helping these residents stay in their homes longer, and this can be done with the right services such as those being promoted by the initiatives presented at the day’s meeting.
    “We are here to talk about something that’s really an exciting collaborative,” said Dr. Lesley Fernow of the Maine Highlands Senior Center. “We are talking about a collaborative effort to really improve the health of our community.”
    She said Piscataquis County is at or near the bottom in many categories in a community health needs assessment compiled by Eastern Maine Health Systems, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, diabetes, dementia and premature death. “What are we doing wrong? Part of the reason we are not making progress is we are living in a world of silos,” she said, also saying the health rankings are due in part to poverty.
    Dr. Fernow said various agencies and programs are not working together and “in many ways that would make us bigger and better.” She gave an example of a recent meeting in which not all the attendees were aware of the services available through Penquis. “We are not using all the resources we have to the best of our ability,” Dr. Fernow said.
    “We need people power, we need to get the word out,” she said. “We need venues for talking and we need to find out how to reach these people.”
    Charlotte White Center Integrated Health and Senior Services Coordinator Meg Callaway, who is leading the TIP program, asked those in attendance how many would like to be hospitalized and who would like to live in a nursing home.  “Nobody wants to leave their home and leaving your home is really expensive,” she said.
    Saying Piscataquis County has the highest number of emergency room visits of Maine’s 16 counties, Callaway said, “We can pinpoint what needs to be better to keep people in their homes.” She added, “It is all about helping people who are older and have chronic conditions avoid these services.”
    The Maine Health Access Foundation awarded $40,000 to plan for the TIP program and a proposal has been submitted for $100,000 annually for three years to implement measures that will help residents be able to stay in their homes. Callaway said if awarded the funding would be used to help determine the best use of existing resources and services, make better use of low or no cost transportation, improve access to home-based services, assist with the recruitment of volunteers, help provide more support for caregivers and “increase activities in the community that are accessible and interesting to seniors and those with disabilities.”
    Callaway said telehealth monitoring is one example in which county residents can still be looked after and be able to stay home. This service can result in a “lessening of money on care and keeping you in your own home and your own bed.”
    Erin Callaway, who is serving as the healthy community project coordinator for the Piscataquis Regional YMCA, said the survey data for the county’s health is critical. “I want them to bother you, these things cost towns money and poor health strains our services,” she said. “People leave when they don’t have a healthy environment. New employers are not attracted to an area that doesn’t have a healthy population.”
    The Healthy Communities grant is being used for Callaway to head out into the community to talk about health. She said she is trying to reach residents who may be underrepresented as “part of the much larger effort to think about health in Piscataquis County.”
    “This is not something that happens in one year or two years, this is a wholesale change in thinking and we can do this,” Callaway said. She mentioned in Franklin County resources have been pulled together in order to improve the health of residents through formalized partnerships.
    Callaway said the next phase for her will be a year-long planning sessions, followed by an implementation of the various resulting projects. “This is going to be around far beyond the grant,” she said. “To face these numbers, as dismal as they seem, they are a catalyst for change.”
    “If they can’t come to the table, we can bring the table to them,” Callaway said, asking those in attendance to let her and Meg Callaway know of people who would be impacted by the programs but may have difficulties or be unable to get out and share their stories.
    Dr. Fernow said the health statistics indicate an incorrect approach has been used, with the emphasis on treatment instead of prevention “and that is how we differ from Farmington, Franklin County.” She said this can be carried out in part through the Maine Highlands Senior Center and a “focus on improving the health and independence of seniors in our community as they age.”
    She said the center will be a medical model, for services such as medication dispensation and bathing, and will serve residents in an approximate 30-mile radius from Dover-Foxcroft. At the present time the closest medical model facility is in Blue Hill, with those in Bangor not meeting the full medical model requirements.
    “The idea is to provide a respite for caregivers and safe and vital care for people who are aging with disabilities,” she said, mentioning examples such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia and head injuries.
    An estimated $2 million worth of care is being provided by family members to their loved ones in need of such services, Dr. Fernow said. “The adult day services will fill a niche, a niche that is needed,”
    The Maine Highlands Senior Center will also serve as a social space for older residents to gather, and Dr. Fernow said the center intends to also set up similar places in communities other than at Central Hall in Dover-Foxcroft.
    “My problem with all these people working is it’s way too Dover-centric,” said Chris Maas, who also has been involved with the senior center and larger project to renovate Central Hall for a number of years. “We see this as encompassing all of the area.”
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