Maine is the oldest state in the nation. Not in terms of history—22 states joined the union before Maine did—but in terms of the maturity of its residents. The median age in the Pine Tree State is 44.65, more than six years higher than in the rest of the country. In 2014, more people died in Maine than were born, and by 2020 it is projected that seniors (people 65 and older) will outnumber the young.
To be old in Maine is often to be poor: Maine seniors over 85 suffer from poverty at a 50 percent higher rate than younger Maine seniors. In extreme cases, the elderly live with broken limbs, get themselves arrested to obtain adequate shelter in jail, and sometimes die at home during the coldest, hardest months between December and March. Affordable housing could help with many of these problems, but the state government and local voters have been reluctant to offer assistance. (In November 2018, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed income tax that would fund home care for the elderly and disabled.) It’s no wonder then that on a recent national ranking of the best and worst states to be a senior, Maine came in at #47.
Magnum photographer Matt Black traveled to Maine in January, amid temperatures that fell into the single digits, to meet and photograph more than a dozen older residents. Though the problems they face are not exclusive to Maine—it is projected that by 2030, there will be more people aged 65 and older in the US than under 18—their plight underscores the fragility of America’s elders. Without a strong social safety net, none of us can truly feel secure in our old age.
“Rural areas like these that lack resources—you’ve got to get ready to take care of your own, yourself, your neighbors.”
—Dixie Shaw, director of Hunger and Relief Services at Catholic Charities Maine, Aroostook County
“By the time you’re done, your hips are achin’, your knees are achin’, you’re ready for a wheelchair.”
—Jason Burdgess, 45, of Washington County. He and his cousin, Billy Freeman, 63, dig for clams in below-freezing temperatures.
“We actually lost a community member in our town of East Machias, essentially to exposure in her own home. She froze. That type of tragedy, when people are isolated and their unmet needs just continue to go unmet and unchecked—for me, it was a wake-up call.”
—Charley Martin-Berry, former director of local nonprofit Community Caring Collaborative in East Machias