New governor must listen to the needs of invisible elders

New governor must listen to the needs of invisible elders

By Al Norman

Massachusetts has elected a new governor.

One of the most striking details about the long campaign was the almost total lack of attention paid to the needs of the elderly. Seniors were invisible. No candidate really spoke to their issues.

alnorman_headshotThis is strange, given the fact that as of the last presidential election of 2012, there were 975,000 people age 65 and over in Massachusetts — 833,000 of them were registered voters. That’s 22 percent of the registered voters, or more than one in five voters in this state. Roughly nine out of 10 actually voted in 2012. Elders turn out in the highest percentage of any state voters.

Where did these seniors go? Why did no one talk about them on the campaign trail?

If you look on the websites of the major candidates who ran for governor, you will find almost no mention of “seniors” or “elders” in their issues statements. You will find a lot about economic growth, jobs, schools, safer communities, energy policy, women, etc. But even on the issue of health care, there was no real focus on a “senior agenda.”

One candidate promised to “increase investment into … Medicare and Medicaid demonstrations to improve care for the most vulnerable and highest-cost patients.” On the issue of housing, another candidate said: “housing shortages place impossible burdens on low-income working families and seniors.”

One gubernatorial hopeful visited a senior center and spoke about public education, student loan forgiveness programs and expanding mental health services.

Gov. Deval Patrick managed to give seven State of the State messages in a row without specifying a single elderly agenda item of public priority.

I asked former Gov. Mike Dukakis about the low-recognition of elders as a public policy concern, and he told me: “It could be because people are complacent — they think elders are doing pretty well.”

Yet if you ask a senior, they will tell you:

•I can’t live on a another 1.76 percent Social Security cost of living increase;

•My winter fuel costs force me to ‘heat or eat’;

•I haven’t been able to afford to see a dentist in years;

•I don’t have the money to get my hearing aid fixed;

•Even with food stamps, a trip to the grocery store is scary;

•My rent is now 60 percent of my income.

According to a recent report, 64 percent of elderly women and 53 percent of elderly men in Massachusetts are “economically insecure,” which is defined as not having enough money to live on without going into debt, or relying on public assistance. The incoming governor will find that elders have plenty of issues weighing on their mind.

Now that the politicking is over, we must get back to the fundamental challenge of making elders visible once again.

Dukakis may be right: elder well being may have been taken for granted. It may also be true that the media cannot see elderly people. It may be that elected officials are overwhelmed by the challenges of a decent education, or reducing drug use in our state. But certainly issues like the rising tide of elder abuse and financial exploitation are worth public discussion.

Elder advocates will have to keep on telling their stories as if they had never been told before, in hopes that elected officials will hear them like they’ve never heard them before.

Al Norman is the executive director of Mass Home Care, a network of 30 agencies whose mission is to keep elders living independently at home.


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