It was only 5:30 in the evening, but Rollie’s was already packed when Douglas and I stopped in for a pre-show pint and a cheeseburger. If you’re not from the midcoast, you may not be familiar with this raucous Belfast sports bar, a longtime fixture on Main Street that attracts the locals with a bunch of big TV screens, a menu of reliably good bar food and a friendly, fast-moving staff that makes you feel like a regular even if you only drop in once or twice a year.
We hoped we would be ahead of the Friday night crowd, but the place was hopping. All the booths were taken, and all the bar stools, too. So we sidled into a couple of open seats at the long center table where you find yourself nestled up next to total strangers. Many conversations and casual friendships have been struck up at this convivial communal table.
On this night, we found ourselves chatting with a quiet, bearded gentleman somewhat older than we are. He was there on his own, nursing a beer and keeping an eye on a college football game. Gradually, we learned that he had retired after a long career in teaching. He had been active in local government and was well known about town. He was divorced and lived alone. A few years ago, he had suffered a stroke that left him weakened but still able to walk, drive and live independently.
“My doctor told me I need to get out of the house,” he told us. “He said it wasn’t good for me to be alone all the time. So I’m right here at Rollie’s every night. These people are my family.” If he ever failed to show up, he said confidently, someone at the bar would surely notice.
My thoughts have been taken up recently with the issue of older Mainers living alone. The sad story of Lucie McNulty, a reclusive woman in her 60s who died in her home in Wells more than two years before her body was discovered, grabbed the headlines and prompted me to write my own story about elders living in isolation.
I learned a lot in researching that piece — that the aging-in-place approach reflects a national agenda aimed at keeping baby-boomers like me safe in our homes as we grow older; that some communities are making great strides in developing systems and programs to support seniors while others lag behind; and that regular personal contact with neighbors and friends is at least as important as any agency outreach in ensuring the well-being of vulnerable elderly Mainers.
Most important, I learned that people who turn away from normal social contacts and choose lives of isolation put themselves at great risk of solitary injury and death. Lucie McNulty’s neighbors hadn’t seen her in so long, they thought she had moved away.
We build surprising social networks. Last week, the Bangor Daily News reported on a couple of Bangor bus drivers who realized that one of their regular passengers, Nicholas Zaccaro, a gregarious 84-year-old man from Brewer who rode the bus almost daily, hadn’t been on board lately.
“He doesn’t have anybody, so we keep an eye out for him,” one of the drivers told the BDN.
Concerned, they checked around at local hospitals, asked his neighbors and knocked on his apartment door, all to no avail. Finally, they contacted the Brewer police for a welfare check. The police found Zaccaro injured, lying on the floor of his apartment. He later died at a local hospital, but his observant pals the bus drivers deserve credit for caring enough to track him down.
Maine has a long tradition of fostering a crusty independence in its senior citizens, and we certainly can’t force our more reclusive friends and neighbors to accept structured social services or even casual solicitations. But for sociable aging Mainers like Nicholas Zaccaro and the bearded fellow at Rollie’s, the everyday eyes of a caring community are an important safeguard that we can all uphold.