Glenn McConnell watched as his mother was sucked into "the longest farewell" of Alzheimer's disease, succumbing to it in 1998. So when he says South Carolina must provide more education about respite programs that give caregivers a break, he's talking from personal experience.
Now McConnell — sworn in as lieutenant governor in March — is in a position to shape South Carolina's policies affecting older residents. Although the lieutenant governor's role is mostly ceremonial, he has one area of critical importance: heading the South Carolina Office on Aging.
The former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senate president pro tempore, McConnell (R) assumed the new role after Lt. Gov. Ken Ard (R) resigned and pleaded guilty to campaign fraud.
In his new post, McConnell must tackle the challenges of South Carolina's aging population: preparing the state for the wave of boomers. The number of residents 60 and older is expected to double by 2030 to about 1.8 million. The state also faces the growing need for home- and community-based care resources that help people age at home rather than in an institution. Currently, the waiting list has more than 8,000 people on it.
"We're going to be tenacious about stating the case for why these challenges need to be met," McConnell, 64, said in an interview with the AARP Bulletin. "And I'm going to do my best to build community support for it … and General Assembly support for it."
He said he plans to "go out in the field," meeting with churches, nonprofit organizations and other groups to "bring … energy … and confidence out there [and show] that we're interested and that we care."
Using his influence
Teresa Arnold, AARP South Carolina legislative director, hopes McConnell's deep ties to the legislature, where he developed relationships during a 30-year career, will help.
"He is the champion for seniors now," Arnold said. "We really hope that he can use the influence that he has to raise awareness about the needs of seniors, which are pretty dire."
Though just a short time in his term, which ends in 2014, McConnell has requested $5 million in additional funding in the 2012-13 budget year for the Office on Aging's home- and community-based services programs, on top of the $1.5 million currently allocated.
He's also asked for a clearer separation between the budgets and expenditures of the aging and lieutenant governor's offices. Last year, more than $300,000 was transferred out of aging programs to fund the lieutenant governor's office. "Let this office help underwrite the aging program rather than the aging program underwriting this office," McConnell said.
He said he also supports the creation of a long-term care task force.
Focus on the needs of seniors
McConnell has a reputation for finding money for the issues he supports. A model submarine in his office points to his work to secure funding to conserve the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley. Outside, just a short walk from his new office, is the African American History Monument that McConnell helped create.
Now that he's lieutenant governor, he doesn't plan to change the way he does things.
For recreation, the lifelong Charleston resident will still enjoy high-speed jet skiing, giving cannon firing lessons and toiling on his coastal grapevines. At the statehouse, he said, he'll use his influence to focus on the needs of seniors.
"We've got to articulate the message, bring energy to the message, make the message attractive to the different political philosophies out there in a way that says 'look, we're talking about a social policy, we're talking about good economic policy and we're talking about good budgetary policy,' " McConnell said.
With limited state resources, McConnell acknowledges not all needs will be met. A key question, he said, is "how do we look out there at those challenges and figure out how to use our program in a complementary way to elevate [the] quality of life?"
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Katrina Goggins is a writer living in Columbia, S.C.
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