Considering the many positive benefits the elderly population gains as a result of senior centers, as well as the growing number of seniors in Rhode Island, Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) introduced a bill last week that would create a statewide funding formula to increase grants for senior centers and other senior service programs.
If approved, it would take effect during the start of the 2014 fiscal year, and award each municipality $5 per each non-institutionalized person aged 65 and older, as reported by the 2010 United States Bureau of the Census, or an amount equal to its fiscal year 2013 state senior services grant awarded by the division, whichever is greater.
For fiscal years 2015 through 2019, the General Assembly shall increase funding for the grant program by an additional dollar each year until the minimum basic grant reaches an amount of $10 per senior within the municipality.
The initiative would cost $400,000 statewide, and come from the general fund.
Shekarchi said it’s a small price to pay, as senior centers are good for the state because they help promote healthy lifestyles for seniors and act as a resource for them. The centers encourage elderly people who live on their own to remain a part of the community, while allowing them to maintain their independence.
“It’s a good bill. I’m proud to support it, and I’m proud that the other members of the delegation are co-sponsoring me,” said Shekarchi, noting that at least 15 other reps, including Rep. Joseph McNamara, are in support of the legislation. “I want to keep my campaign promise to help elderly people, and this is a good way of doing it.”
According to former State Rep. Maureen Maigret, who served from 1975 to 1984, Warwick would receive about $45,000 more in the first year, as 14,144 seniors live in the municipality; Cranston would receive approximately $35,500 more for its 12,305 seniors; and Johnston would receive about $13,800 more for its 5,454 seniors.
Right now, said Maigret, Warwick gets $1.82 per senior from the state; Cranston sees $2.12; and Johnston sees $2.47. To reach these calculations, Maigret developed a spreadsheet based on census figures from 2010 for each of the communities and how many persons aged 65 and older, plus information on current grants.
“Our senior population is growing,” Maigret said. “These grant-funded programs that senior centers run are so critical to keeping our aging population in the community. We believe the state should be providing more money for these kinds of grants so senior centers can continue to be robust and offer a variety of services to those in the community.”
Some of the programs and services include but are not limited to meal and nutrition programs, information and assistance, health, fitness and wellness programs, transportation services, public benefits counseling, employment assistance, volunteer and civic engagement opportunities, social and recreational activities, educational and arts programs, and intergenerational programs. Compared with their peers, senior center participants have higher levels of health, social interaction, life satisfaction and lower levels of income.
So, what qualifies Maigret, and why should people trust her calculations? To start, she was the director at the Department of Elderly Affairs from 1991 to 1994, as well as policy director for Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty from 1999 to 2006.
Further, she is a policy consultant to the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island on long-term care and elder services. She staffs Project G.R.O.W. (Gaining Resources for Older Women), a program based on the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island study “Older Women in Rhode Island: A Portrait,” which she researched.
Maigret also worked as a registered nurse in various health care settings for 20 years prior to her positions in state government. During that time, she became aware that grants were benefiting communities but weren’t based on a formula or distributed based on the population of seniors in the community. “That’s when I started thinking, ‘Maybe we need a better way to get these grants to communities,’” she said.
Through the years, this thought has been in the back of her mind. She decided to voice her concern to Shekarchi, and he agreed to draft legislation that would distribute grants based on the population of seniors in the community. She said the legislation is one of Project G.R.O.W.’s top priorities, as older women are represented to a greater degree in the elder population.
“Six out of 10 people aged 65 and older are women, and when you get to age 85 and older, it’s seven out of 10,” Maigret said. “Older women use senior services to a greater degree because there are more women in the community. [G.R.O.W is] working on policies that would promote older women’s abilities to remain independent and economically secure.”
According to Meg Underwood, the director of the Pilgrim Senior Center, the facility served approximately 10,000 seniors in 2012, with 6,000 of that number having memberships. She hopes the legislation is approved.
“We are very grateful for Rep. Shekarchi’s efforts on our behalf because those funds are really crucial to our survival,” she said. “The longer we can keep people living in their homes independently, the better their quality of life, their family’s quality of life and ultimately the less expensive it is for the government. Once they have to move on to an assisted living facility or a nursing home, it gets quite a bit more expensive. It saves the state money in the long run to provide services while they are still living independently. It’s very vital to the senior population.”
To be eligible for the community senior services grant program, the legislation states that, “a municipality or nonprofit agency must contribute an equal amount of cash or in-kind resources for senior program support that it provided in state fiscal year 2013, and submit to the division for its approval a plan detailing the services and/or programs to be provided with grant funds, how the proposed plan meets the needs of local seniors, and how the local share match will be met.”