By Brian Goslow
With the country’s attention focused on the 2012 presidential election, and state and federal budgets giving short shrift to the needs of retirees, Massachusetts advocacy organizations are fighting an uphill battle to make sure older people and their family members are not being left behind.
Groups such as AARP Massachusetts, Massachusetts Senior Action Council (MSAC) and Massachusetts Association of Older Americans (MAOA) are focusing attention on national issues, such as Social Security, Medicare and health care, and local concerns, such as housing, transportation, nutrition, worker training and fuel assistance programs.
These advocacy groups are working to ensure those in office — and those running for office — are aware of the effects potential cuts in programs would have on the communities they serve.
“We in the advocacy community are all concerned that there does seem to be a lack of attention right now to the needs of the senior population,” said AARP Massachusetts State Director Deborah Banda, “and with the demographics we have, with that population growing so rapidly, this is a population we do need to pay attention to.”
This month, AARP will launch a nationwide initiative intended to ensure all Americans, not just older people, but their children and grandchildren as well, understand the importance of Social Security and Medicare as the country’s safety net. In Massachusetts, “You’ve Earned a Say” kicks off on March 19 in Springfield; it will be followed by a series of listening events at councils on aging, senior centers and other locations throughout the spring and summer.
“We want to hear from seniors and their families on what they think about the programs, and what steps they think should be taken to help protect and strengthen them,” Banda said. The responses will be compiled in mid-September, brought to the attention of elected officials and candidates and be part of a voter education campaign prior to the November elections.
AARP Massachusetts’ 2012 state legislative agenda puts much of its focus on keeping seniors safely in their homes; it’s calling for the continued support of home care, adult day health and elder nutrition programs, elder protective services, including the Money Management Program, and councils on aging and seniors centers which provide or oversee many of the programs.
Proposals to cut funding to the state’s Elder Nutrition Program and either raise fares or cut MBTA transportation options particularly disturb Banda.
Gov. Deval Patrick’s fiscal 2013 budget proposes cutting $1.5 million from the state’s Elder Nutrition Program. “We’ve been saying over and over again we can’t understand why the administration would propose doing that because providing seniors with these meals gets them the proper nutrition and helps them maintain their health and independence,” said Banda. “That is going to be less costly in the long run than treating elders if they suffer medical consequences from poor nutrition.”
Banda said the proposed cuts to MBTA services seem to hit the state’s aging population disproportionately. “We’re trying to encourage people to use public transportation when driving is no longer the safe option for them and yet, here we are cutting back on public transportation services for seniors.”
Carolyn Villers, executive director of MSAC, said her organization has been making its thoughts known on proposed MBTA fare hikes and route cuts.
Seniors who count on public transportation could suddenly find themselves without local bus service due to the possible elimination of 23 to 100 percent of current routes.
“Seniors, depending upon which proposal you look at, are looking at anything from an 83 to 500 percent cost increase, depending on the service,” Villers said. The MBTA’s RIDE paratransit service, which provides door-to-door transportation to eligible residents unable to use general public transportation due to a physical, cognitive or mental disability, could see a jump in cost from $2 per one-way premium service ride to $24 for a round-trip fare.
That would be on top of already difficult financial challenges that leave some seniors having to choose between food, heat or medicine. “People with disabilities have a higher poverty rate and elders have a high poverty rate,” Villers said. “They are on very fixed incomes. This is not just an attack on their lifestyle, but on their ability to survive. We’re making sure people are being heard on that.”
MSAC members have been in attendance at public meetings held by the MBTA to discuss the proposed changes; more than 50 attended a gathering in Lynn. The organization is planning to mobilize a State House protest on March 14.
Senior advocates learned the value of working together last year when the governor and legislature moved to eliminate the Adult Day Health Service that would have ended that service for more than 11,000 frail, nursing home eligible elders. While Banda said AARP Massachusetts has been assured that the program is in the FY2013 budget, no specific allocation is currently in the governor’s proposal.
Concern over cuts and proposed cuts have caused more people to get involved in the public discussion process.
MSAC, a member-run organization formed in 1981, has more than a thousand members in its seven chapters statewide. “We are growing quickly right now because of attack after attack on the senior community that is disproportionately being targeted for savings by budget cuts,” Villers said.
“Our goal is to help empower seniors and help them strategize to really be able to have a voice on policies and issues that affect their health and welfare,” she said. Another MSAC focus is the preservation of 80,000 state Housing and Urban Development units that have, or will soon reach, the time limit of rental unit contracts. When that happens, landlords will be free to offer the units at market rates unless previous agreements to accept housing vouchers are extended. MSAC estimates approximately 85 percent of the residents are seniors or people with disabilities.
“It’s not that they’re all elder housing, but many folks living there have aged-in-place and are now elderly,” Villers said. “We helped to pass legislation in 2009 that gave the state another tool to help preserve some of these developments but the reality is there are many still at risk.” Under the legislation, if an owner wants to sell the development, the state can designate a local community development corporation or another non-profit to purchase the property, extending its affordability as long as subsidies continue to exist.
Chet Jakubiak, executive director of MAOA, said his organization broadly focuses on economic and health security issues. “A major part of our mission is keeping elders visible in the mainstream of life and keeping elders and elder issues on the public agenda,” he said.
One of those issues is the restoration of job training programs for the state’s baby boomers and seniors who recently found themselves unemployed or needing to return to the job market. Many of them are finding it difficult to acquire the skills they need for many of today’s jobs.
“The Title V Senior Community Service Employment Program took major cuts this year, which makes it more difficult for older people who lost their jobs to retrain and get into the labor force,” Jakubiak said. “Those are important programs that support middle class folks and middle class workers.”
Being able to work is crucial for seniors and middle class boomers who four or five years ago felt they were secure in their retirement, only to see their retirement investments dwindle along with their home equity.
Budget balancing was made more difficult this year by severe cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). It was the first time the program was ever cut. Jakubiak said a hard-earned $21 million state appropriation made things a little easier for residents coping with huge increases in heating costs. “It doesn’t replace all of it, but it does replace some of it,” he said.
MAOA recently announced an initiative for state caregivers of older family members to assist them in strengthening their own lives outside those caregiving duties. First to get help will be caregivers in the Boston area.
“We’re interested in reaching out to caregivers who are trying to make decisions on how they’re going to move on with their lives,” Jakubiak said. “We want them returning to thinking about themselves and what they want to do. Would they like to work? Would they like to volunteer? We want to see how these people can really get re-engaged in their own lives.”
MAOA hopes to convince legislators of the need to fund programs that assist caregivers. “Over 80 percent of the care that’s provided to older people in this state is done by family members and friends,” Jakubiak said.
The organization hopes to identify five or six caregivers willing to share with a wider audience the challenges they’ve faced and the personal benefits they’ve received being there for their loved one. By sharing their tales in public forums and with legislators, the hope is that they will encourage legislation to benefit other caregivers.
MAOA hopes its efforts on behalf of caregivers will serve as a model for supporting other underserved populations “There’s a resurgence of ageism we’re seeing as part of this,” Jakubiak said. “There are lots of issues that older people face that are also vital to the lives of the Commonwealth as a whole that are not on the public agenda.”
For more information: AARP Massachusetts, aarp.org/ma; Massachusetts Senior Action Council, www.masssennioraction.org or 617-284-1234; Massachusetts Association of Older Americans, maoamass.org or 617-426-0804.