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An Award To New England's Elderly Is Not Always Cause For Celebration


Back in 1909, the Boston Post held an unusual publicity stunt. They sent canes made of ebony and capped with gold to 700 small New England towns with instructions that they be given to the oldest citizen of that town and passed on after their death. The Boston Post folded 60 years ago, but the cane tradition has continued. As Daniel Rosinsky-Larsson reports, some of the cane-bearers are not exactly thrilled with the honor.

NOELLA HEMOND: I am the oldest person in the town of Minot.

DANIEL ROSINSKY-LARSSON, BYLINE: This is Noella Hemond. She was awarded the Boston Post cane in rural Minot, Maine, in 2014. She's 95 years old.

HEMOND: That's the only reason - because you're the oldest person. It's not that you did a lot. It's not that you're famous. It's just that you're old.

ROSINSKY-LARSSON: Noel's still accomplished a lot in almost a century of life. She donated a fire truck to Minot and set up a scholarship for local students, and her dairy farm was selected as the best in Maine by the state's largest milk company. Years ago, she asked if she was next in line for the cane.

HEMOND: When I was 75, I had asked, now, how far down the line am I? And they said, oh, you're pretty far down the line. But you'll be surprised how the old people die fast. This one's ahead of you, this one's ahead of you - whoops. There you come right up on the top.

ROSINSKY-LARSSON: Today, some people say getting the cane is like a kiss of death. Some towns have retired the award altogether since no one wanted it. Dana Lee presented the cane several times when he was town manager of Mechanic Falls, Maine.

DANA LEE: Sometimes, unfortunately, people were kind of sad to see us. It was almost like, you know, the Grim Reaper's at my, and they've got the cane, and that means that I'm probably not long for the world. You know, I would go home from those things, and it would tear at me a little bit.

ROSINSKY-LARSSON: Dana says the kind of life people had lived determined if they would accept the cane with gratitude or fear. He found the people who were healthy and had good relations with their neighbors were happy with the award. But he says old people today often aren't close to the people in their communities.

LEE: Now, people are very mobile. You know, they come into town - you might have 100-year-old or, you know, a very old person that rents an apartment in town for a while. And then maybe they're only there a year, but during that year, you find out about them, they get the cane. Nobody even knows their name because they're transient.

ROSINSKY-LARSSON: Acton, Maine, is a small town of just a few streets on the Maine and New Hampshire border. Louise Horne's the oldest person there. She's 95, and she's lived there since 1949. But she's seen Acton change as new people built vacation homes on the surrounding lakes. She thinks that diminishes the value of receiving the cane.

LOUISE HORNE: We have so many people that come from other states, and they don't - it doesn't mean anything to them. And I think you need to live in the town for a certain number of years to feel as though it's an honor.

ROSINSKY-LARSSON: But Louise says older residents of the town know her from the nursing services she provided back when Acton was more isolated.

HORNE: I did a lot, just because there was no doctor around. I worked with the doctors in the hospital, so they knew me. And so they would say, well, when so-and-so has too much pain and needs a shot, why don't you give it? And I used to do that.

ROSINSKY-LARSSON: Louise was proud to receive the Boston Post cane two years ago.

HORNE: I got mine hanging up there so anybody can see it. And I think people do that, and they talk about it more.

ROSINSKY-LARSSON: As more seniors move into nursing homes and new communities, it's become harder to find people who appreciate an award for being old. But in many of New England's small towns, the Boston Post cane remains a celebration of a rich and long life. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Rosinsky-Larsson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Rosinsky-Larsson
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