HARPSWELL — Dianna Haller wants her life to end the way it started: on Orr’s Island.
Her mother’s side of the family landed on Orr’s Island in 1758, “but my father’s side were latecomers – they came over in the mid-1800s,” she said in an interview Monday, recalling also her grandmother’s corner store on Route 24, where fishermen would gather after a day’s work and tease the women there who formed a sewing group.
But when Haller, 65, returned to the island in 2010 after a period of living away, she moved into a home that could have brought about the end of her life all too soon.
Although the new house was just a short walk from the ocean – Haller had felt landlocked in Illinois, where she and her late husband moved for his work – the previous homeowner had not properly cared for the property: the basement crawlspace was infested with mold.
On Dec. 9, 2014, Haller was rushed to the hospital with respiratory problems. She had been breathing in mold spores on a daily basis – accelerated by 1-inch holes that the previous homeowner had drilled into the floorboards to circulate heat from a basement wood stove – causing a toxic respiratory infection and aggravated symptoms from asthma.
She spent three weeks in intensive care. Doctors told her children to begin making funeral arrangements.
Miraculously, Haller survived. But removing the mold would cost about $38,000, more than she afford. Since her husband died in 2012, Haller said that her modest fixed income has decreased by two thirds, while her expenses haven’t changed.
She has also been back to the emergency room so frequently “they don’t even ask your name” anymore, Haller said.
She was faced with a choice: leave Orr’s Island, or risk her life by staying.
“My father once told me that if he never had to cross the Orr’s Island bridge again, that would be too soon,” Haller said, a sliver of blue ocean visible in the window behind her. “I used to think, ‘that’s really limiting, dad.’ But now I know what he means.”
Another miracle meant she didn’t have to decide.
A new program through Harpswell Aging at Home, in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, organized a group of volunteers to come to Haller’s home and permanently seal her home’s crawl space – all without costing Haller a penny.
Made possible with funding from Habitat for Humanity and the John T. Gorman Foundation, the program formed after a Harpswell Aging at Home survey found that Haller’s case wasn’t unique.
For towns with a population of more than 3,000 people, Harpswell is the oldest town in the state, with a median age of 56.9 years old, according to a demographic analysis survey commissioned by HAH with grant funding from AARP.
The survey shows that while the overall population has declined to just under 5,000 year-round residents, the number of people over 60 has increased by 56 percent.
Contrary to the perception that affluent retirees from out of state are responsible for the uptick, more than a third of of Harpswell’s aging population struggle with the means to cover daily living expenses, based on the Elder Economic Security Index.
Harpswell Aging at Home formed last year. Its executive director, Jess Mauer, said the biggest challenge for the organization is that the aging population is “vulnerable, but disconnected.”
“What attracts people to the area – the remoteness, and the privacy and independence that it provides – is also what presents the greatest challenge to its aging residents,” an analysis of the survey’s 900 respondents found. And “while historically, older residents relied on strong neighborhood ties to provide assistance for things like running errands or helping with chores, Harpswell is changing … making it more challenging for older adults to find both paid and unpaid assistance.”
Services exist to fill that void, although the survey found that few residents take advantage of them. Only 48 percent of respondents were aware of elder care service agencies, and only 9 percent said they’d ever used them.
Compounding the issue, the town’s distinct regional communities engendered a cultural attitude that prizes independence and dissuades residents from asking for help.
“Independence and privacy are really important,” Maurer said. “Being independent people, we don’t like to ask for help.”
This insight has guided the group’s strategy, and Maurer said HAH’s mission has primarily been to tactfully connect people to existing services, more so than create new ones.
“It’s really one of overcoming those social norms that aren’t serving us anymore,” Mauer said.
HAH communications committee member Charlene Boulais credited the success of the effort to using trusted sources to disseminate infomation.
Bob Bauman, who chairs the Home Repairs Committee, noted that it helps that his team of home-repair volunteers are mostly Harpswell residents over 60 – trustworthy peers, in other words, who are helping “from the heart.”
Among topics like the need for better transportation and more social opportunities, the survey found that home repairs were the biggest need among seniors.
The team has repaired five homes to date, and will finish another three by the end of the year as a part of the pilot program.
“Bob is like the Energizer Bunny of Harpswell,” Haller said. “He’s everywhere.”
Next year, Bauman said the team plans to fix 25 homes – about one every two weeks – a goal he said the group will easily reach.
Haller found out about the home repairs pilot through a trusted source – Bauman’s wife, Hollie Vanderzee, chairwoman of the HAH communications committee.
Vanderzee referred Haller to yet another trusted member of the community, Linda Strickland in the town office.
Strickland is responsible for determining whether the candidate meets income and eligibility requirements; according to Bauman, her centrality in the town has made her a key instrument in referring candidates for the program.
From there, Bauman said he and a social worker meet with the homeowner, and before any discussion about home repairs takes place, the group discusses what other services the homeowner might find useful or necessary.
As such, Bauman said the home repair team is committed to a philosophy of helping the entire person, remarking that the visit provides an opportunity to connect residents with other HAH services.
“We really try not just to solve the problem, but do it in a way that the homeowner feels good about,” Bauman said, emphasizing that the team won’t repair anything without the homeowner’s permission or approval.
“Everyone was so open, so easy to talk to,” Haller said, and with Bauman by her side on Monday afternoon, pointed out dozens of repairs the team performed in addition to sealing her crawlspace. “I couldn’t believe how quickly it happened.”
The team replaced her ceiling lights, a rotted bathroom vanity, and winterized her windows with insulation – all jobs that Bauman said make the home safer, warmer and drier.
Since they completed work in early October, Haller said she hasn’t been back to the hospital.
“Having my house upgraded the way they did has taken a lot off my mind,” she said. “My children aren’t calling me every day saying, ‘You need to get on a waiting list'” for a place in an assisted living home.
“It’s kind of scary to think of being stuck in town and not being able to get home,” Haller said at the thought of moving to a retirement community.
All those rides in the ambulance were scary, too, she said. “When you’re born on an island, I think part of your soul belongs to the island.”
Before volunteers from Harpswell Aging at Home resolved the mold problem in her Orr’s Island home, Dianna Haller was frequently visiting the emergency room with life-threatening respiratory problems. “Having my house upgraded the way they did has taken a lot off my mind,” she said.
Harpswell Aging at Home’s Bob Bauman installed LED lights in Dianna Haller’s home on Orr’s Island earlier this year with a team of volunteers.