From left, Newport senior Penny Fitch, Rep. Deborah Ruggeiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport) and Robert Robillard, president of the Rhode Island Senior Center Directors Association and director of Coventry’s Department of Human Services.

Rep. Lauren H. Carson and Rep. Deborah Ruggiero were joined by senior center directors, seniors and other supporters at a State House event today promoting their legislation to transform the state’s Office of Healthy Aging into a far more robust and comprehensive agency to better serve the needs of Rhode Island’s seniors.

The Aging Your Way Act (2022-H 7616) returns the Office of Healthy Aging to its former status as a full-fledged state department, expand its director’s authority, and appoints local senior centers as hubs for service delivery, with authority to bill Medicaid for transportation.

“With the Baby Boomers rapidly increasing the ranks of our seniors every year, it’s time Rhode Island starts making a greater, more deliberate commitment to senior services. Community supports encourage an active, more fulfilling lifestyle for people as they age, and they are far more cost-efficient than institutional alternatives,” said Representative Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport), who is the bill’s primary sponsor. “We aren’t taking full enough advantage of the existing network of senior centers operating around the state, where the staffs know the population, the services they need and the local places that provide them. The state should partner more closely with senior centers to create the vibrant, responsive system of services that we need to really make the quality of life much better for the entire older population of our state.”

Said Representative Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), who is cosponsoring the legislation, “We need to do more for our older citizens who want to age in place. That means better aging policy and services for our 65+ citizens. We have an ‘age wave’ in this state where one in four people will be 65+ in the state over the next several years, and we need to start framing policy and having the conversations that take our older citizens out of the shadows and put them at the forefront with home-based care, transportation and affordable housing like accessory dwelling units. There’s so much more we should be doing for our parents and grandparents.” 

The legislation would authorize the new Department of Healthy Aging to protect and enable seniors to stay healthy and independent by providing meals, health programs, transportation, benefits counseling and more. Under the bill, the department would provide professional development to agencies and programs that provide services to seniors in the state and become a clearing house to help those agencies and businesses assist senior centers, which would serve as hubs for the delivery of services from the state.

In particular, the bill directs the new department to manage and develop a multi-tiered transportation system that works with the Department of Human Services, the Department of Transportation, senior centers and with all existing modes of public transportation to develop transportation plans that suit the elderly population of each municipality. The department would be enabled to authorize senior centers to bill Medicaid for transportation they provide.

The bill also empowers the department to encourage other state agencies to employ individuals who have expertise in the areas of transportation, housing, nutrition, health, financial and economic literacy and stability, lifelong learning, physical and social engagement, and adult protective services; and to provide professional development to agencies and programs providing senior services.

Representatives Carson and Ruggiero were joined at today’s event by directors of senior centers from around the state and other advocates for seniors.

From left, Newport senior Penny Fitch, Rep. Deborah Ruggeiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport) and Robert Robillard, president of the Rhode Island Senior Center Directors Association and director of Coventry’s Department of Human Services.

“Increased social isolation, stress, and trauma as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to an increase in mental health issues and physical decline in elders in the U.S. The impact of the pandemic has been particularly concerning for elders who suffered the most significant loss of life, loss of connection, loss of function and loss of access than any other segment of our society. COVID-19 has shown us that the need to prioritize our growing elder population is glaringly obvious and essential to the future of Rhode Island,” said Robert Robillard, president of the Rhode Island Senior Center Directors Association and director of Coventry’s Department of Human Services. “The need to have a single, cohesive Department on Aging is now more apparent than at any other time. The post pandemic growth in gaps in access for Rhode Island Seniors need to be addressed. The need for a lead state agency with adequate funding, staffing and oversight cannot be overemphasized.  We should prioritize and plan for the future needs of Rhode Island’s seniors today.”

Said Penny Fitch, a Newport senior and a member of the Edward King House, Newport’s Senior Center, “It’s time for the seniors of Rhode Island to be heard. We are a large voting block that hasn’t really found its voice yet. We need senior centers, not only as a place to socialize, but also to help us make our voices heard.”

The other cosponsors of the bill include Rep. Susan R. Donovan (D-Dist. 69, Bristol, Portsmouth), Rep. James N. McLaughlin (D-Dist. 57, Cumberland, Central Falls), Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), Rep. June S. Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol), Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence) and Rep. Brandon Potter (D-Dist. 16, Cranston).

Ryan Belmore is the Owner and Publisher of What'sUpNewp.

He currently serves as Vice President of the Board Of Directors for Fort Adams Trust and on the Board of Directors for Potter League For Animals.

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