Jeanne Gattegno (left) tells the story of a 70-year-old woman who was assaulted by her own son to House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
WARWICK — Rhode Island seniors called on lawmakers to make significant investments into elder care services, including addressing workforce shortages in long-term and home care on Wednesday at an annual legislative forum.
The Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island presented its top priorities to House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio during the Legislative Leaders Forum on Senior Issues.
The event drew 225 participants who were interested in addressing rising health care and housing costs, isolation and loneliness, aging in community support, and income insufficiency. Those priorities were based on a 2020 survey conducted by the coalition.
“We are asking our state leaders today to think about our priorities and consider passing a better budget for better care,” said Maureen Maigret, a policy consultant on aging.
Maigret, a former state legislator and former director of the state’s Department of Elderly Affairs, stressed the importance of a senior-friendly budget as the state’s population gets older.
As of 2020, the state has 182,486 residents who are 65+. This number is expected to increase by 65,000 each year. By 2030, the coalition expects 247,578 residents — one in five Rhode Islanders — to be over the age of 65.
Four priorities for fiscal 2024 state budget
To address these issues, the coalition has four suggestions for lawmakers.
- Provide $500,000 in state funding to Point — a United Way sponsored program that helps individuals that are 55 or older, living with a disability or are a caregiver to get connected to resources in their area.
- Enable more seniors to qualify for the Medicare Premium Savings Plan. Addressing medicare, she said, would save seniors up to $2,000 a year — money that could be used to pay for living expenses and better allow them to age in place.
- Add five staff persons to the Office of Healthy Aging, with two staffers working for the office’s Adult Protective Services Program.
- Increase the starting salary of homecare and nursing home staff to $20 an hour.
Jeanne Gattegno, director of the Saint Elizabeth Community in Warwick, told the audience a story of a 70-year-old woman who was abused by her son who was dealing with mental health issues.
“He destroyed things in the house — he pushed her into a chair and tied her to [it] with extension cords,” she said. “There she sat for eight hours.”
Her legs were also raised up over the chair, which put her in the emergency room.
“Now this story is really to one extreme,” Gattegno said. “[But] there are many, many reports of abuse.”
If the state were to have additional staffing in protective services, they can better help save a person’s life, she added.
The biggest priority emerging from the forum was the need to increase the starting salary of homecare and nursing home staff to $20 an hour.
According to the Service Employees International Union, which represents healthcare workers in Rhode Island, district support and group home staff are currently paid a starting rate of $18 an hour.
Home care workers make roughly $15 an hour. Certified nursing assistants make between $17 to $19 an hour.
Allyson Manning, a long-term care nurse, said a shortage of certified nursing assistants where she works means many residents have only five and a half minutes with an aide to get ready for breakfast in the morning.
Her days are so long, she said, she can only manage to work two days a week.
“It’s just too hard to go in day in and day out and not being able to keep up,” Manning said.
Caregiver concerns personal for House Speaker
This issue was especially near and dear to Shekarchi, who spoke about caring for his 97-year-old father.
Shekarchi said his father was able to age at home until a recent fall placed him at the Bethany Home of Rhode Island.
“I see how hard they work and I see how limited a staff they have,” Shekarchi said. “They’re not slow, they’re just doing three or four things at a time.”
The House Speaker highlighted “historic progress” on health care workforce retention in recent years, including investments into nursing homes in last year’s budget. Still, he said there is work to be done.
We need to do everything we can to ensure Rhode Islanders can enjoy their older years with dignity and security. Thanks to the Senior Agenda Coalition of RI for the invitation, and for your continued advocacy on behalf of our state’s seniors. https://t.co/dDiuIOPkTr
— Dominick Ruggerio (@SenatorRuggerio) March 22, 2023
The Senate president agreed.
“They need some help,” Ruggerio said. “If we don’t get the appropriate number of people to serve the public, we’re going to be in trouble in Rhode Island.”
Though details of the budget are still being ironed out, Shekarchi and Ruggerio said they will keep seniors’ concerns in mind.
“We’re going to make sure Rhode Islanders get the care they so richly deserve,” Ruggerio said.
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