volunteers at multigenerational garden in Saco, Maine

I had the good fortune a few weeks ago to meet some wonderful volunteers participating in the United Way Day of Caring. They were from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Age Friendly Saco and they were planting a multigenerational garden at the Saco Community Center.

Kids planting at multigenerational garden

The community center offers several kids’ programs — a preschool, an afterschool program, and a summer teen program. The afternoon of the Day of Caring, a group of kindergarteners dug into the dirt as well.

Multigenerational garden in Saco planters

The garden is an Age Friendly Saco project. It was made possible by a grant from the Maine Community Foundation and the local Rotary Club whose members built all of the planters. Multigenerational means it will be tended, nurtured, and enjoyed by people of all ages, explained Jean Saunders from Age Friendly Saco.

Multigenerational garden/Saco

We have 350 school children who are here all summer long, so we have school children tending the gardens with our seniors. It’s been a phenomenal multigenerational experience. We have herbs, flowers, vegetables, and blueberry and strawberry plants, and hope to expand the garden a little bit every year. At the end of the summer, we have a farm to table dinner. Last year was our first one.

Jean Saunders, Age Friendly Saco

Two of the volunteers from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard — Jackie Ransom, a shipfitter, and Kim Bedard, a mechanical engineer, gave credit to Jackie’s grandmother, who also worked at the shipyard, for inspiring them to give back to the community.

She’s inspired me a lot. To be a strong independent woman and find a wonderful career and obviously, to be a community member. She’s awesome.

Jackie Ransom, Day of Caring volunteer

She was such an advocate of paying it forward. She and I served on a committee for years at the shipyard. She always said we need to give back.

Kim Bedard, Day of Caring volunteer

Giving back is at the heart of Age Friendly Saco, a community-based organization dedicated to helping people age in place by providing the necessary resources and services.

In 2016, our incoming mayor was very interested in Saco becoming an age-friendly community. We surveyed 1000 of our residents over the age of 55 and asked what would it take for you to stay in your home? What do you think the issues are? That’s how we started. We developed an action plan and we try to always be listening. We are one of about 65 communities now in Maine considered age-friendly.  

Jean Saunders, Age Friendly Saco

The notion of an age-friendly community comes from the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2006, it launched an international effort to help cities around the world prepare for the rapid aging of their citizens. AARP is its affiliate in the United States. The survey that Saco did was made possible by a grant from AARP Maine.

WHO has a checklist of eight basic features that communities need to address in order to be designated age-friendly:

  1. Outdoor spaces and buildings
  2. Transportation
  3. Housing
  4. Social participation
  5. Respect and social inclusion
  6. Civic participation and employment
  7. Communication and information
  8. Community and health services
Saco Spring Into Spring dinner dance
Spring into Spring dinner dance

The Multi-Generational Garden is one of several Age Friendly Saco projects and more will likely arise as the needs are identified.

  • Handy Neighbor Program Volunteers make minor modifications in people’s homes to help them be safer, such as installing grab bars, clearing clutter, moving furniture.
  • Comfortably Home We’re working with Biddeford Housing and Habitat for Humanity on a program called Comfortably Home. We have $60,000 in grant money to work on at least 35 homes in the next six months. We’ll be doing much bigger types of repairs than what we can do in the Handy Neighbor Program.
  • Grocery shopping As people get older and some have to give up their license, they may not have an easy way to get groceries. We started a monthly shopping shuttle with the city of Saco.
  • Senior Food Boxes We are working with Wayside Food Programs to deliver 30-pound boxes of non-perishables to one central location in Saco. Because transportation is often an issue, volunteers pick up and deliver the boxes to individuals — about 33 people are signed up.
  • Social opportunities Dinners, dances, dinner dances, wellness fairs, to name a few
  • Sand Buckets for Seniors In collaboration with the Saco Public Works Department we pick up 5-gallons of sand-salt mixture for any homebound resident older than 65 who needs it and deliver it to their home in a pail provided by Age Friendly Saco.
  • Knox Boxes We collaborate with Dupuis Hardware and the Saco Fire Department to provide a small metal box that hangs on an exterior door and securely holds a key to your house. It can only be opened by the Saco Fire Department in the event of an emergency.

The primary goal of an age-friendly community may be to provide resources so people can stay in their own homes as they age, but Jean says it’s a delicate balance.

Obviously, you don’t want people to stay in their homes if they’re not safe. But when we did our community survey, what did everybody say? ‘I want to be in my home. I don’t want to move out of the community. I want to be in the community that I lived in, that I grew up in. I want to stay in my home.’ Well, how can we help make that happen?’

Jean Saunders

In addition to what they’re already doing, another possibility is something known as intergenerational co-housing. University students live with older adults who have extra room and help do chores around the house and provide companionship for a reduced rent. Age Friendly Saco just entered into a partnership with the Center for Excellence in Aging & Health at the University of New England to explore the potential benefits.

Welcome sign at the garden

Back to the garden. It bloomed for the first time last year (2018) and Amelia Meier, who’s with the Saco Parks and Recreation Department and helped coordinate things, said that not only did it bring different generations together, but the youngest generation also learned something unexpected.

The parents were thankful that their kindergartners who didn’t like vegetables at the beginning of the summer, came home and said they wanted to start growing things like mushrooms and basil. I think it’s neat to see the whole educational piece as well as the community aspect of it all coming together. They wanted to try everything because they had ownership over the vegetables and herbs that they were growing.

Amelia Meier, Saco Parks and Recreation
Kids planting in Saco garden

Amelia talked with some of the kindergarten students who helped plant a few weeks ago and here’s what they had to say:

They were most excited to plant cucumbers, tomatoes, and cilantro because they love to eat salsa and pickles! They also mentioned that if they could grow anything at home they would want to grow watermelons, strawberries, and tomatoes!

Multigenerational garden Saco

I asked some of the older gardeners why they participate in Age Friendly Saco.

I’m going to be old someday and it will be really nice to have someone help me and if I help build this program then I’m going to know how to use it.

Lynn Steed, 77

Because I want to give something back and this is a good project and also because I’m getting older and I want to know what it’s like to get even older.

Millie Spence, 75

I love seeing people and giving back. It’s a great bunch of people to work with.

Margo Johnson, 77

What would it take to start a project like Age-Friendly Saco in your community? A supportive community.

It takes a city like Saco that says we’re going to partner with you, we’re going to give you space, so you can have an office and a phone number. One of our strong beliefs is there are so many resources out there, but people don’t know about them. We have a phone number that people can call. It’s staffed by volunteers in the office Monday through Friday. We don’t want to replicate services, we want to direct people to services, we want to connect them with services.

Jean Saunders, Age Friendly Saco

For more information, visit the City of Saco website or the Age Friendly Saco Facebook page. The phone number is 207-710-5029.