ELLSWORTH — You’re a widower living on the coast, your eyesight is declining and you don’t feel as steady behind the wheel as you once did. Now you’ve got to go to Brewer five days a week for cancer treatments. How do you get there?
Enter Friends in Action, an organization that uses volunteers to provide free rides to medical appointments, grocery shopping and other necessities. A visitation program is also percolating. A playground for older adults at Knowlton Park is in the works.
“We’re doing well with volunteers, but the need is out of the roof,” said Executive Director Jo Cooper of Lamoine.
Cooper founded Friends in Action 15 years ago. The Bar Harbor native is passionate about older adults and serving others.
“I feel like our society doesn’t value age,” said the 65-year-old. “Aging is an interesting phenomenon. I had a wonderful grandma. So I loved old ladies.”
When Cooper was in college, she had a close friend who was 60 and dying.
“She encouraged me to get involved with hospice,” Cooper said.
In the early 2000s, Cooper had been working for an organization on Mount Desert Island that provided rides for older adults as well as physically disabled adults.
Cooper saw a demand that wasn’t being served off the island.
“I knew there was a need, I had no idea” as to the extent of the need, Cooper said.
She suspected it would grow as the uber-sized baby boomer generation aged. Baby boomers are the generation of Americans born between 1946 and 1964.
U.S News and World Report states that by 2030, more than 20 percent of U.S. residents will be 65 or older, compared with 13 percent in 2010 and 9.8 percent in 1970.
Cooper, who was born in 1952, said she was in one of four kindergarten classes in her native Bar Harbor.
“When I went to school we were busting out of everything,” Cooper said. “There were so many of us.”
Now, there are many who need help getting to appointments.
Locally, demand for rides to appointments has risen by 16 percent during the past six months.
Cooper recalls that when she was a teenager in Bar Harbor, a new high school had to be built to accommodate her peers.
To that end, the needs of older adults, including those in the baby boomer generation, have risen in the past five years.
When Cooper launched the organization in 2003, she was operating out of her home. Then Meadowview offered her a small office, which was outfitted with furniture donated by the hospital and a computer purchased with a grant.
Today, Friends in Action leases part of the Bryant E. Moore Community Center.
While Cooper is grateful for the modern accomodations, she worries that people assume Friends in Action is a city of Ellsworth department and thus receiving operating funds. It does not.
Friends in Action is funded through grants, user donations and annual fundraising events, two of which occur in September. Those include an annual dinner and auction on Sept. 29 and a golf outing and dinner on Tuesday, Sept. 18.
Cooper credits the city of Ellsworth for creating space for older adults.
“The city of Ellsworth looked at it as an opportunity for economic development — not a problem to be overcome,” Cooper said.
Former City Manager Michelle Beal led the development of the senior center in the rehabilitated former Gen. Bryant E. Moore School and the neighboring Seaport Village — housing for older adults.
Ellsworth was the second municipality in Maine to be named “age-friendly” by the AARP.
“A lot of that was the senior center and Seaport Village,” Cooper said. “The senior center is a very positive quality of life thing to offer.”
In addition to the free ride program, there is a “Visit with Friends Coffee House” on Mondays and Thursdays from 9 to 11 a.m. in the café at no charge.
The senior center also offers a workout room, computers, activities and offices for Cooper and her part-time staff.
Friends in Action serves all of Hancock County.
A free coffee house is held at the Stonington Community Center on Mondays from 9-11 a.m. and there is also one on Wednesdays from 9-11 a.m. at the Blue Hill Congregational Church.
The organization can help towns recruit volunteers to drive their residents who need help getting to appointments.
Sullivan is one such town.
“Sullivan has become an age-friendly town,” Cooper said. “They’re helping recruit volunteer drivers for their town.”
“That’s kind of exciting for me,” said Cooper. “We want to better serve these communities. We have the infrastructure now.”
In the future, Cooper would like to start a program in Washington County. She said the need there is especially great.
Friends in Action’s annual dinner and auction is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Moore Community Center starting at 5 p.m. Tickets are $75, $50 of which is tax-deductible. Reservations are needed by Sept. 22. Executive Director Jo Cooper’s brother, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, will serve as auctioneer. Call 664-6016.
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, the 8th annual Friends in Action Golf Outing and Dinner will be held at Kebo Valley Golf Club in Bar Harbor. Check-in starts at 10 a.m. with tee-off at noon. Dinner is at 5 p.m. at the Links Pub.
Those who can’t attend the dinner or the golf tournament can still contribute directly on Friends in Action’s website at https://friendsinactionellsworth.org/.