- Written by Susannah Whipps, Representative - 2nd Franklin District
I’m writing this at my kitchen table. Normally I’d be sitting in my office at the historic Massachusetts State House where I have a view of the Golden Dome from my office - if you stand on the window sill and crick your neck a bit. Since March and this pandemic, I’ve only traveled to the State House on weekends to pick up my mail. It’s a strange feeling to pull into the garage under the building and see no other cars. Even more strange to walk the empty halls which are usually full of hustle and bustle; lobbyists, visitors, demonstrators, tourists, and colleagues. Last weekend the only folks I saw were a few rangers.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately worried about our senior citizens, many of whom live alone.
The legislators continue to file bills and work remotely. Usually by this time of year we have a budget completed and on the governor’s desk. Not this year. We currently are working on a 1/12 budget to carry us through July, the first month of the fiscal year. We’ll most likely do this for the next few months until we can grasp what revenue in the upcoming year will look like.
I’m definitely saving on hours commuted, which is good as I’ve been needed in my district. When the stay at home advisory was announced, our office began taking calls the likes of which we have never seen. Constituent services have always been the most important part of this position. The number of unemployment claims filed started to grow exponentially. Our email inboxes and voicemail would fill up as soon as we emptied them. My legislative aide Rachel and I serve as the “go-between” for our constituents to many state agencies, but the vast majority of the calls in recent months have been regarding unemployment claims. The process is new to many people who for the first time in their lives find themselves without a job. The administration worked to expand their capacity and increase the number of people to process claims as quickly as possible. We still take calls every day from people looking for assistance and guidance as they navigate various programs and we’re always happy to help.
Beyond the financial distress COVID-19 has caused, I’ve noticed a great deal of emotional distress. Many of my friends haven’t been able to visit with or hug loved ones, especially those who live in assisted living or nursing homes. Kids are missing their friends, teachers, and staff from their schools. High school seniors missed proms, graduations, and parties. I applaud the creativity of some folks who have organized parades and ‘no-contact, socially distant’ celebrations, but it’s just not the same. My niece, who is expecting her first child any day now, had a ‘drive-by’ baby shower. I ordered a gift locally, paid for it online, picked it up curbside, drove to their location, and tossed it out the window of my car at the expectant parents as I sped through the driveway.
Desmond Tutu once said, “A person is a person through other persons; you can’t be human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.” I’ve spent a lot of time lately worried about our senior citizens, many of whom live alone. Many of whom rely on their local senior centers and LifePath’s congregate meal sites. To them it’s not just lunch. It’s sharing. It’s socializing. It’s being human. When speaking with Tracy Gaudet of the Orange Senior Center, she said, “These folks are my family,” and I believe all of the people who work at our region’s COAs feel the same way.
We all understand that state closures and stay at home advisories had to happen to protect our Greatest Generation, but even before COVID-19 there were numerous studies about social isolation and loneliness in our senior population. Loneliness and isolation affect physical health. Some research suggests that isolation in senior citizens is linked to poor eating habits, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. LifePath, and many similar organizations who have Meals on Wheels programs, are combatting this by not only delivering nutritious meals to our seniors, but also providing an important welfare check on their clients. That delivery person might be the only personal interaction a senior has for several days or even longer. I’m so grateful for everyone who does this vital work for our communities.
As we move forward and start to inch our way through reopening the Commonwealth, I ask you all to think about your neighbors. A simple phone call or card could really brighten someone’s day and if you are struggling with this strange “new normal,” please reach out for assistance. LifePath can make referrals to resources, as can your local councils on aging, or feel free to give my office a call at (978) 895-9606. I serve the towns of Athol, Belchertown (A), Erving, Gill, New Salem, Orange, Petersham, Phillipston, Royalston, Templeton, Warwick, and Wendell.
In closing, I want to thank all of the folks who have been working throughout this difficult time. As I travel this district, I continue to see the very best in people. The teams providing services to our local seniors have risen to the occasion. The volunteers at our local food pantries have worked non-stop to assist those experiencing food insecurity. Our state and municipal employees have done their very best to serve all citizens and have worked to keep people safe and informed.
- Written by Senator Jo Comerford
Twenty-twenty is upon us yet it feels like mere moments ago that I was sworn into the Massachusetts Senate — my team and I first putting the proverbial rubber to the road to address the issues I heard about during my campaign.
From the start, thanks to constituents sounding the alarm, elder and disability rights have been central to our policy platform. Here are just a few examples of bills I introduced just weeks into my first year, the ideas for which came from constituents:
- I filed a bill to allow spouses to serve as caregivers, paid by MassHealth for the necessary personal care services they provide. The goal is to allow someone who is eligible for nursing home care to remain at home if they choose. Under current law, some family members are already considered eligible to be a caregiver for someone who is elderly or living with disabilities in the community. For example, a daughter or a cousin could qualify as a caregiver, and be paid when they take care of someone at home. But a spouse doesn’t qualify under current rules. This bill simply broadens the definition of “family member” to fairly include the spouse of an elder or person living with disabilities.
- Additionally, I filed legislation that would expand the earned income tax credit program (EITC) and eliminate the age limit so that those who work past age 65 can continue to benefit from this important program. A recent study from the University of Massachusetts found that the Commonwealth has one of the highest rates of elder economic insecurity in the nation. The EITC is one of the most effective programs at lifting people out of poverty by helping working low-income individuals and families receive a tax credit to make ends meet. Currently, state EITC assistance ends when individuals turnage 65. This hurts older workers with little or no savings whose Social Security benefits do not provide sufficient income. My bill would raise the EITC age cap and allow older adults to qualify for help.
- Finally, I also filed legislation to prevent individuals from experiencing the “cliff effect” when their income or assets rise even a little above an economic threshold and benefits are cut as a result. This bill would change the rules for PACE and Home and Community Based Service Waiver programs by allowing individuals with income above the eligibility threshold to remain in the programs simply by paying a premium equal to the amount that their income is over the limit. This would help seniors and individuals living with disabilities maintain safe, independent lives in their communities and prevent unnecessary and costly stays in long-term care facilities.
I’m delighted that my bill to allow spouses to serve as caregivers and my bill to stop the cliff effect have both been reported favorably out of the initial Joint Committees that they were sent to at the beginning of the session. This is the first step toward winning the passage of any piece of legislation. You can read a great deal more about these bills and many others via my website: senatorjocomerford.org.
From the start, thanks to constituents sounding the alarm, elder and disability rights have been central to our policy platform.
I have found it equally important to be mindful of elder and disability rights in my role as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health. It was a great honor to be chosen as chair of this important committee, particularly as a new member of the Senate. The Public Health Committee received over 400 bills to review each session. Every bill gets a public hearing and a vote by the Committee. Many of the bills that come before the Committee deal with the treatment that medical professionals are able to provide, the way that hospitals work, or the health accommodations we make in schools and public places.
The Committee is still reviewing a great deal of legislation, but we’ve already approved a number of important bills. One requires MassHealth to cover all dental procedures. Oral health is often neglected when we talk about health care, and I’m committed to making sure that we don’t leave out oral health in our policy debates. We’ve also recommended support for a bill to focus more attention on diabetes. Diabetes is rapidly becoming an epidemic, afflicting over 680,000 people in the state. The complications, including heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and early death, cost the state’s health care system a staggering $8 billion last year — let alone the personal and family impact. The bill directs the state to formulate an action plan to focus our attention on the disease and coordinate efforts on coverage, research and treatment, and a concentrated effort on prevention.
And yet another bill the committee approved is one I filed focused on health equity. Even with — arguably — one of the better health care systems in the nation, we have glaring health disparities in Massachusetts. Health is bound up in much more than just care delivery programs, though they are critical. Recent studies have shown that the most significant social determinants of health and wellness include: education, economic stability, housing, air quality, transportation, and the built environment.
That’s why my bill requires that each state budget submission identify major state initiatives that positively affect health and health care, including programs in housing, transportation, education, and so on — issuing a health equity statement which details the impact of the initiatives on removing health disparities and advancing health equity.
In all of this work, I’m tremendously glad for the staunch advocacy of my constituents and organizations like LifePath. It’s going to take all of us to ensure that our government works equitably for all people. I’m honored to take up this work with all of you.
- Written by Representative Paul Mark, 2nd Berkshire District, Chair-House Committee on Redistricting
The 2020 U.S. Census will be taking place soon, with the official “Census Day” of April 1, 2020 happening approximately five months from now. The Census is required under Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution which states that the actual enumeration must take place every ten years. The Constitution then specifies that the Census numbers will be the basis for the apportionment of Representatives in Congress. The number of Representatives in Congress also determines the number of Electoral Votes each state shall have in the presidential election.
As Chair of the House Committee on Redistricting I am putting a great deal of work into supporting efforts to make sure that a full, fair, and accurate Census count happens in Massachusetts. Census data is the foundation upon which our legislative districts at the State House of Representatives, State Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives are built. An accurate Census count ensures that we receive the political voice we are entitled to in both Boston and Washington. It is important that each of us is prepared to fill out the Census and to encourage our friends, family, and neighbors to do the same.
An accurate Census count ensures that we receive the political voice we are entitled to in both Boston and Washington.
The good news for Massachusetts is that population estimates suggest we should not lose a member of our U.S. Congressional Delegation this time around. We unfortunately did lose a Congressional seat during the 2010-2011 process. Population estimates show that Massachusetts is growing at approximately a 5% rate and has an estimated population just over 6,900,000 people. The bad news for those of us in Western Massachusetts is that much of that growth is concentrated in Boston and the surrounding communities. In Franklin County we are looking at an estimated 0.57% decline in population. If those numbers hold up it will mean larger legislative districts where elected officials are required to serve an increasing number of communities which makes the opportunities to visit with constituents that much more difficult. It is so important that we have a complete count to keep as much of our voice and political power intact as possible.
The Census is also the basis for the allocation of more than $675 billion in federal money and hundreds of state and federal programs that distribute funding, grants, and other supports to the states, counties, and municipalities. This money ends up being spent on roads, schools, public works projects, hospitals, and so many other important programs that people in our communities rely upon every single day. Filling out the Census fully and accurately helps ensure that we are receiving our fair share of the funds we all pay for and our communities deserve.
It is also important to know that filling out the Census is safe and confidential. Every piece of information that is collected by Census workers is protected under federal law. The Census is prohibited by law from sharing their data with any other federal or local agency, including law enforcement officials. Every Census Bureau employee takes an oath to protect the confidentiality of the data they collect. That oath is sworn for life and carries significant criminal penalties for any violations.
Thank you as always to The Good Life for the opportunity to contribute an article on timely issues. Should anyone have questions on the Redistricting process, the Census, or any other matter in state government, please contact my office at (413) 464-5635, representativemark.com, or visit our weekly office hours in Greenfield at the GCC Downtown Center on Mondays from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., Charlemont Town Hall Thursdays from 9 a.m. - noon, or Northfield Town Hall Thursdays from 1 - 4 p.m.
- Written by Congressman Jim McGovern
President’s Proposed Budget Makes Billions of Dollars of Drastic Cuts to Medicare and Medicaid
For the past two months, I’ve spent my weekends crisscrossing central and western Massachusetts and visiting coffee shops, town halls, and senior centers to hear directly from the people of Massachusetts’ Second Congressional District.
I believe this is what our democracy is all about: listening, learning, and deciding together how we can build a better future for our kids and grandkids. It gives me so much hope to know that people care about our country enough to show up and tell me what’s important to them. But lately, I’ve noticed that more and more often, I hear from people who are worried or downright scared about what’s going on in Washington.
I get it. Just a few months ago, the president proposed a budget that makes billions of dollars of drastic cuts to Medicare and Medicaid to help fund a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans. His budget also reduces funding for Social Security offices, which means longer in-person waits and more time on hold for older Americans and those with disabilities struggling to get help.
Now thankfully, the president’s budget won’t automatically become the law. In fact, Congress will likely write our own budget, and you can rest assured that I will strongly advocate for seniors and persons with disabilities during the coming months. I believe that instead of cutting these vital programs which we have fought so hard to create, we ought to be increasing benefits, protecting against inflation, and cutting taxes for beneficiaries who have paid into the system for their whole lives. That’s why I’m a proud supporter of the Social Security 2100 Act, which would expand the program by making a small, simple change: asking millionaires and billionaires to pay the exact same payroll tax rate as everyone else does.
I’ve also heard from so many older Americans who are now taking a bigger role in raising their grandchildren. This month, over 2.5 million children in America are in a household where a grandparent is the primary caregiver. The opioid epidemic that has affected so many communities is only expected to increase that number. It goes without saying that these grandparent-led households face unique challenges. They may not have time to plan financially, or it may be difficult for them to access school or healthcare information.
“I will do everything I can to fight for programs that help seniors and people with disabilities, and to ensure that every single person in this country is treated with dignity and respect.”
So last year, I teamed up with my colleagues in the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle to introduce the “Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act” – which I’m proud to report was passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president. Our bill creates a new federal advisory council focused on developing and disseminating information designed to help grandparents. Currently, the Department of Health and Human Services is in the process of setting up this council, and I look forward to working with them to ensure that grandparent-led households have access to the tools and support they need.
Finally – in addition to fighting to protect Social Security benefits – I’m also proud to support the Social Security Fairness Act, which eliminates the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). These two programs reduce the Social Security benefits of an individual or surviving spouse who receives a public pension from a job not covered by Social Security. Just this past week, a constituent of mine called and was worried that should anything happen to her husband, she would be unable to support her family. I think these provisions are just plain wrong, and that’s why last week I submitted testimony to the Ways and Means Committee asking them to move this bipartisan legislation forward.
I want you to know that I am committed to ensuring that America keeps our promise to those who have made this country what it is today. I will do everything I can to fight for programs that help seniors and people with disabilities, and to ensure that every single person in this country is treated with dignity and respect.
If you or someone you know would like to contact me – or needs help with any federal agency or benefits – please call my office in Northampton at (413) 341-8700. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Congressman Jim McGovern represents the Second Congressional District of Massachusetts in Congress, which includes the communities of Deerfield, Erving, Gill, Greenfield, Leverett, Montague, New Salem, Northfield, Orange, Shutesbury, Sunderland, Warwick, Wendell, and Whately. He is the Chairman of the House Rules Committee, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and he Co-Chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
- Written by Senator Adam G. Hinds
Community supports benefit dementia patients and family caregivers
When I was in elementary school, my grandmother, whom I affectionately called Nina, moved from California to Shelburne Falls to be near our family. After school I’d walk to Nina’s apartment at Highland Village, where the two of us would watch a soap opera or golf tournament on her TV until my mom or dad would pick me up.
When I entered high school, we all noticed Nina’s short-term memory slipping. As time went on, it was not uncommon to come home to dozens of answering machine messages, all from my grandmother, all saying essentially the same thing. My mother provided the bulk of care for Nina at Highland Village, visiting whenever she could, and later at a nursing home in Shelburne.
I learned then how difficult it is to watch a family member’s personality slip away, and I’ve seen the strain a person’s dementia can put on a family.
This past fall in Pittsfield, I was invited to visit a family member support group and heard how the disease can overwhelm patients and their families. I listened to stories of physical, emotional, and economic impact that the disease can cause family caregivers. I also saw the comfort and emotional stability such groups can provide.
Nearly fourteen percent of older adults in the Commonwealth have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. In rural Massachusetts the challenges for those with dementia and their caregivers increase, due to lack of access to medical care, support networks, broadband Internet and transportation options.
Fortunately, our region is responding. A group called Age Friendly Berkshires is working to make the County more responsive to the needs of its aging population, including those with dementia. In March, I hosted a briefing for legislators and staff at the State House with the Mass. Healthy Aging Collaborative, AARP Massachusetts and the Executive Office of Elder Affairs where Age Friendly Berkshires was invited to share their experiences. More recently, a group of hilltowns in my district—Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Plainfield, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington—received the Age Friendly designation from AARP and the World Health Organization. The designation comes with a commitment by the towns to improve conditions for elders. With a grant from the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, these seven communities are working to make it easier for elderly residents to age in place while reducing isolation and loneliness.
Molly Chambers, a social worker, has been doing her part to assist family caregivers for those with dementia for more than twenty years through the support group she’s run at LifePath in Greenfield. Over the years the group has supported husbands, wives, and adult children from near and far as they help each other through tough stretches and grow as close as family. LifePath offers many other supports for people with dementia in addition to the group.
“I’ve seen the strain a person’s dementia can put on a family.”
Caregiving can wear a caregiver out, sometimes to the point of illness. Imagine, Ms. Chambers says, waking four times every night to soothe an agitated or disoriented partner. Ms. Chambers believes—and I agree—that we can do better by making it easier for family members to get breaks by providing more affordable respite care. In other cases, what’s needed, she says, are grants to support home renovations or adaptations, like ramps and safe showers, which can allow those with dementia to stay in their homes longer.
Five years ago the Pittsfield agency Home Instead Senior Care began its support group for family members of those with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and more recently the agency started a group for those with dementia. During my visit with the support group for caregivers, facilitated by Bobbie Orsi, Director of Community Relations at the agency and also one of the founders of Age Friendly Berkshires, I saw firsthand how the support group served to validate and normalize what caregivers and their family members were going through.
Ms. Orsi, a nurse, had to navigate these struggles herself when her husband John, an electrician, was first tested for cognitive issues in 2007 and had them confirmed in 2011. She cared for him as Alzheimer’s made him increasingly agitated and sometimes aggressive. Ms. Orsi had help from a number of caregivers from her agency, including one who accompanied John on volunteer shifts at the South Congregational Church food pantry. Another caregiver helped John do projects in their yard and accompanied him fishing at the Orsi’s home on Goodrich Pond. Dementia, Ms. Orsi noted, doesn’t take away our need to keep up our interests and the roles we serve in the community.
Removing a loved one from the home for care and safety is among the most difficult decisions a family member can face. After much family discussion, Ms. Orsi had to make that decision in late 2017. John lived out his life in a number of healthcare facilities until he died in November 2018 at age 73.
What motivates Ms. Orsi today is facilitating the support group for family caregivers. Her aim is to listen to what family members are experiencing and help them to better understand and determine what they need. The work Ms. Orsi does is essential, but there is more we can do for those with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
These steps and others will require community support and political will, but they should allow those with dementia—and their family members—to live better lives.
State Senator Adam G. Hinds (D-Pittsfield) represents the 52 western Massachusetts communities of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District. He serves as the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Revenue. This is his second term in the Massachusetts Senate.