Combating demographic deafness


By Al Norman

Over a period of seven years, I criticized former Governor Deval Patrick for rarely mentioning the elderly in his annual State of the Commonwealth speeches. In 2013, I wrote: “This is the seventh year in a row that the elderly have been invisible to this administration. Not one word about older people.”

On Jan. 21, 2016, Governor Charlie Baker delivered his first State of the Commonwealth speech. It was a state without seniors. The word “elder” did not appear once. There were initiatives for the MBTA, for the Department of Children and Families, for solar power, for charter schools, for opioid addiction – but not one reference to the needs of older adults.

The proportion of Massachusetts’ population that is 60 and older is growing more rapidly than other components of the population. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the 60-plus population in Massachusetts will be 25 percent by 2030 – an increase of 33 percent compared to 2012.

We are suffering from “demographic deafness,” which is a chronic condition in which public officials are unable to hear the voices of their older constituents. A case in point:  “We are going to have to learn to lean on each other,” Governor Patrick said in his 2009 State of the Commonwealth speech. “That means check in on your elderly neighbor when it’s cold to make sure the heat is on.”

This January, it’s time to make sure the elderly to put the political heat on. Our state has more than 1.3 million elders, but as a constituency they are largely inaudible. There are many policy initiatives that would help older people “age in place” at home that still have not happened:

  • Create a 24/7 residential option for elders to live in homes with up to four unrelated individuals as an alternative to nursing facilities;
  • Allow spouses to be paid caregivers as in the Veteran’s Administration;
  • Allow people who need cueing or supervision to get personal care attendants;
  • Ensure that anyone seeking a nursing facility gets free counseling on their options to live at home (already state law but not enforced);
  • Give elders at home access to daily medication assistance;
  • Guarantee that any elder in managed care has access to an independent agent to help with their care plan;
  • Provide coaching assistance for elders with complex functional and social support needs;
  • Increase the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to eliminate the upper age limit of 65 years for those people without children, allowing working individuals 65 and over to claim the state credit;
  • Expand access to Medicare Savings Program by increasing the income limits to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, and eliminate the asset limit;
  • Raise the MassHealth asset limit for seniors from $2,000 to $4,260 in year one, $6,520 in year two, and $8,780 in year three to give more low-income households access to health care.

In Massachusetts, 19.3 percent of our elderly population lives below the poverty line, and 41.8 percent lives between poverty and economic security. That’s a total of 61.1 percent of the elders in Massachusetts living in economic insecurity – the second highest rate in the nation behind only Mississippi.

So I will be listening when the governor gives his second State of the Commonwealth speech in late January. I am hoping to hear the word “elderly,” and I will be waiting to hear any policy initiatives that this administration has to improve the lives of our substantial elderly population.

Let’s wipe out demographic deafness in our lifetime.

Al Norman is the executive director of Mass Home Care. He can be reached at