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Left in the Cold

Left in the Cold

The winter chill feels especially cruel in the New England state with the nation’s oldest median age, where many live in poverty. A photographer meets some of these struggling citizens.

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.

Snowstorm, Aroostook County, Maine.
Farm near Carroll, Penobscot County.
Harry Hale, 76, shovels snow at his home in Aroostook County.

“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

Grace Alley at home. Unionville, near Steuben, Washington County.

“My problem is having company all the time. I don’t have enough. The weekend is all black; all I have is TV.”

—Grace Alley, 83

“I don’t always have the amount of money necessary to meet my bills. And if it hadn’t been for my husband, I wouldn’t have anything.”

—Grace Alley

Grace with her closest companion.
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Paper mill, Madawaska, 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.

Allen Tomah, Pleasant Point Reservation, Washington County.

“I was in Windham and Machias jail, Penobscot jail, Farmington jail ... they feed you and give you a place to sleep. So they stay in jail all winter. Some of them guys I know, they’re still in jail.”

—Allen Tomah, 70. If it gets much colder, or if his heater gives out, Tomah might get himself arrested again.

“I like listening to music in the dark. I get lonely. Nobody comes over. This winter, nobody came over, no Christmas card, nothing, nothing.”

—Allen Tomah

Tomah at his home in Pleasant Point Reservation.
A calendar still turned to last month has every day marked off in ballpoint pen. Under the first Wednesday, Tomah wrote: “Food card: new one.”
A corner of Tomah’s home.
Tracks at a food-distribution center in Bridgewater, Aroostook County.

“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


Checking the mail, near Limestone, Aroostook County.
At the home of Martha Phinney, near Steuben, Maine.

“To keep busy, I go outside and check everything over. I walk to the mailbox, then I walk back, have the TV going. I leave that going 24 hours almost. Just to keep my mind off of me.”

—Martha Phinney, 72, Gouldsboro, Hancock County

“You have to laugh at things, no matter what they are. Because no matter how bad you’re upset or hurting, so many people don’t care, so why let ’em know?”

—Martha Phinney

Phinney’s side table with her medications.


Snowstorm, Madawaska, Aroostook County.


Reflection in a store window, Madawaska, Aroostook County.
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