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Make Aging Policy a Priority

An Open Letter to Governor Deval Patrick

(Published in the January 2011 edition of The Fifty Plus Advocate)

Dear Governor Patrick,

Congratulations on your reelection. As you prepare to deliver the State of the State address that will set the tone for your second term, I urge you to make aging policy a priority of your agenda.

It is an undeniable fact: Our population is growing older. In ten short years, we will see a major increase in the 60-plus population that will effectively redefine the makeup of our commonwealth. Yet, we are not prepared for this transformation; we have not even begun to plan in earnest. Now is the time to start; now is the time to lead.

The demographics tell a story, and provide a preview of what is to come. The sheer number of the Baby Boom population has revolutionized society throughout its lifespan and will continue to as it ages. To engage this group, we must embrace what aging means to them: family, work, community, staying healthy, giving back. We must think as Boomers think – outside of the box, unafraid to break through boundaries, and determined to chart a new course for the future.

To do so requires vision – and leadership – along with organizational change.

In 1970, Massachusetts officials were among the first to acknowledge the enormous impact of the aging of our society when they established an executive, cabinet-level agency on aging policy. Unfortunately, this foresight was derailed in recent years as the Executive Office of Elder Affairs became weakened through a series of back-steps, ultimately diminishing the commonwealth’s focus on aging issues.

Now is the time to correct this misdirected path, and elevate the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, once again, to an independent cabinet level agency charged with developing and implementing the progressive policies needed to prepare, serve and capitalize on the commonwealth’s aging boon.

Keep in mind, aging policy is not singularly defined by health. While health care is critically important, aging policy incorporates so much more; at its best focusing on all of the facets that define the aging experience.

This past October, AARP conducted an online survey of our activists in Massachusetts. We wanted to hear from them, as they prepared to vote, about the issues on which they want our state leaders to focus. The results – health and prescription drug affordability (90%), home and community based care (86%), and protecting 50+ workers (72%) – are the base for a true aging agenda.

The vast majority of older Massachusetts residents want to stay in their homes and communities as they age. To do so, we must ensure that they have the long term services and supports necessary to age with dignity in this environment – changing focus from nursing home and other institutional care to home care. We must also make communities livable for an aging population, influencing housing industry behavior, increasing walkability, and providing transportation options when driving is no longer the safe choice.

When it comes to work, most Boomers plan to stay on the job past 65, the traditional retirement age. Yet, employers are behind the curve in creating age-friendly environments. We must ensure that older persons who want to keep working have the opportunity to do so, as their numbers will help meet workforce needs – and their paychecks will help fuel the economy.

On the health care front, we know the commonwealth faces another very difficult budget year; all the more reason that we must protect the most vulnerable among us, and further our work to make health care and prescription drugs more affordable. Specifically, the state must keep key programs and services – already cut to the bone – intact, including Prescription Advantage and home care. And, for older residents facing rising health care premiums and other cost sharing, we must make payment reform a reality, and keep the prescription drug company gift ban in place.

This past November 2, older voters turned out in force, casting six of every 10 ballots nationwide. They voted on issues, and now must hold public officials to the principles and ideas that got them elected.

On behalf of the more than 800,000 AARP members in Massachusetts, we look forward to working with you to make Massachusetts a national leader in aging policy, and a place in which our older residents and their families can age with health, dignity, and respect.

Deborah Banda is the state director of AARP Massachusetts, which serves more than 800,000 members age 50 and over in the Bay State. This editorial appears in the January 2011 edition of the The Fifty Plus Advocate, the statewide mature market newspaper.