Opinion

When the body fails, what then?

This column by the Aroostook County Action Program is meant to give a voice to people in Aroostook County who “Champion Change” — mostly in their own lives, but also in their community. Our hope is that by sharing real stories of people we’ve come to know through our “community action” work, that readers will experience some amount of change within themselves.

In George Part I, you met George – a man who worked hard his whole life to provide for his family, but whose body eventually put a stop to his ability to sustain that lifestyle. George relocated to Maine in hopes of returning to a life with which he was familiar, homesteading in a remote cabin. But his broken body showed him once again how impossible that dream had become.

Now in Maine, George attempted to connect with services through state resources, but faced the same difficulties he had in other locations when it came to understanding and filling out applications. Reaching out for help turned into more than what George had expected.

“They thought I was some weirdo living in the woods with no heat or electricity and had people come to evaluate me to see if I was competent,” said George. “I’ve lived in the bush for so many years, I’m kind of used to it — that’s the way I lived.”

The Department of Health and Human Services referred George to the Aroostook County Action Program’s Family Coach Heidi Rackliffe when he was having difficulty figuring out how to use his SafeLink phone. One of the first things Rackliffe did was to connect George with the Home Energy Assistance Program and ACAP’s Central Heating Improvement Program to get him help to survive the cold winter. Through the CHIP program, he received a new chimney, allowing him to safely burn wood.

Although he managed to survive the first winter fairly isolated and snow-locked, it was clear that the lifestyle he was struggling to hold onto was not sustainable in his physical condition.

“He was struggling so hard to do it by himself. He physically couldn’t do it anymore,” said Rackliffe, who discussed his options at length with George and ultimately helped him find housing that required less maintenance, but also meant a drastic change from life in the woods to apartment living.

George now lives in income-based apartments and although he’s grateful for the warmth and security they provide, there are elements of his former life he misses and freedoms he feels he’s sacrificed to gain that security. For instance, having lived alone for nearly 20 years, and worked with many animals, George would like to have a dog as a companion, but that isn’t allowed at the apartments.

“If she wasn’t here to help me, I’d be in the street. When I first came here, I lost a lot of weight. I used to ask Heidi and she’d give me boxes of macaroni and stuff. This last year was the best year I’ve ever had on my body because she got me in there,” said George. “Most of the time, I’m by myself, that’s why I wanted a dog so much.”

Space is also an issue for George, who enjoyed collecting things in case he might need them someday.

“It’s so small, I feel like I’m living in a closet. I’ve been on a 65-acre farm. I started collecting stuff and I had to give it all away. Now I have just the basics of what I need and I still can’t put it anywhere. I can’t have any toys – not that I can afford them, but if I wanted them, I couldn’t have them because there’s nowhere to put them,” said George.

Worst, in George’s opinion, is the idea that those who maintain the apartment complex in which he lives can enter the premise with dogs to do searches for bed bugs – a necessary step in warding off infestations, but an invasion of privacy that, to George, makes him feel like he’s done something wrong.

“If they want to come into your house they need a warrant. If they want to come into my house, they do. I’ve never been convicted of a crime in my life. It made me feel like a criminal, but I have to go with the program or I’m on the street,” he said.

Coming next in George Part III, George adjusts to apartment life and, facing the possibility of more medical procedures, starts looking toward building a brighter future for himself.  

Aroostook County Action Program administers more than 40 programs in the community that help people meet their basic needs and that offer support, education and encouragement. For information, visit our website at acap-me.org or call our office at (207) 764-3271.

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