By Deborah E. Banda
When 2010 dawned, most of us were eager to turn the page, put the recession behind us, and look forward to a brighter decade. But, the reality is: Tough times remain, and there’s hard work to be done.
Over the past few years, the economic freefall wreaked havoc for many, including older persons. In fact, they are among the hardest hit. Rising health care costs coupled with shrinking retirement funds weren’t the only sore spots:
•While the overall unemployment rate held steady in December, it rose slightly for those workers age 55 and older — a continuation of the recent trend of high rates for older persons, not seen since the late 1940s.
•In 2008, nearly one-quarter of the 1 million Americans who filed for bankruptcy were 55 and older.
•Nearly one-third of those age 45 and over stopped contributing to their retirement accounts, putting their future financial security in jeopardy.
And the bad news doesn’t stop there. In Massachusetts, state budget cuts often struck the most vulnerable. About 40,000 older residents lost significant coverage from Prescription Advantage, the state’s pharmacy assistance program that works in tandem with Medicare Part D. The program stopped helping with co-payments and premiums, leaving seniors on fixed incomes struggling to afford the medications that keep them healthy and out of more expensive care.
Meanwhile, funding for home- and community-based care took a big hit, resulting in waiting lists for services across the state. As one AARP member with limited mobility shared, “All I wanted was home care. They told me that it may no longer be available due to funding.” He now counts on the generosity of neighbors for help with errands and other daily chores so he can stay in his home, rather than a costly institutional setting.
Also under attack: Protective services for elders, including the Massachusetts Money Management Program which helps low-income seniors manage their day-to-day expenses — and remain independent.
Unfortunately, the fiscal meltdown comes amid a diminished view of aging policy that took roots in the last decade. In 2003, then Gov. Mitt Romney (R) stripped the Executive Office of Elder Affairs of its independent, cabinet-level status and put the agency under the purview of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Presented as a restructuring that would streamline state business, the shift actually served to redefine elder needs as medical in nature — an oversimplification, at best.
Let me be clear: health care is critical and should not be understated. But, the experience of aging is much broader, requiring leadership on a wide range of issues:
•We must ensure that our residents have the services and supports necessary to age with dignity in their own homes if that is their choice;
•We must ensure that communities are livable for an aging population by influencing housing industry behavior, increasing walkability, and providing transportation options when driving is no longer the safe choice;
•We must ensure that older persons who want to remain in the workforce have the opportunity to do so, as their numbers will help meet our workforce needs and their paychecks will help fuel the economy.
Both clear need and opportunity exist. The demographics alone paint a vivid picture. By the dawn of the next decade, in 10 short years, Massachusetts’ 60-plus population will nearly double, effectively redefining the makeup of our commonwealth.
This aging tsunami, and the changes it will bring, is not unexpected. The sheer number of the Baby Boom population has transformed society throughout its lifespan. In fact, Massachusetts leaders were among the first to acknowledge the impending impact of the aging of our society when, in 1970, they established the first executive, cabinet-level agency on aging policy.
Weakening the Executive Office of Elder Affairs became the first in a series of back-steps that now must be corrected.
Massachusetts is well-known for its leadership in developing innovative and progressive policies that not only serve its residents — but help pave a path for others to follow. Just look at health care reform. Our state leaders identified a need, developed policy that would address it, and implemented a solution — one that has influenced current efforts at the national level. It wasn’t easy, but hard work, dedication, compromise and perseverance prevailed.
Later this year, we will cast our ballots in the first gubernatorial election of the new decade. As the race gears up, we must hear from the candidates about where they stand on elder issues. Better yet, we must hear about their vision — and be assured of their urgent commitment to once again define the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a leader in aging policy.
Deborah E. Banda is the state director of AARP Massachusetts, serving more than 800,000 members age 50 and older in Massachusetts. Learn more at www.aarp.org/ma.