By Paul V. Palange

I frequently hear jokes and disparaging comments about aging. Some I take in stride, but there are times that I find such remarks insensitive, tasteless and disrespectful. They can rub me the wrong way, especially when they come from some twenty-, thirty- or forty-something who has no idea about the physical and emotional issues with which we grapple.

Rose Amoros Jones, director of the former state Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA), says ageism is one of the remaining prejudices in society. One of her goals is to diminish that “very negative view on aging.” A step toward completing the task was taken with the recent passage and signing of the fiscal 2020 state budget, which renames the DEA to the Office of Healthy Aging (OHA).

That move is an important one because words matter, according to Jones. They can reflect mindsets, “which drive actions, which drive policies and investments,” she said.

The director and her staff want aging “to be something to be celebrated not something to fear,” Jones said. They have released a draft of “Rhode Island’s 2020-2024 State Plan on Aging” that states the work of the Office of Healthy Aging “is anchored in a people-first philosophy” and the “five core values of choice, connection, equity, safety and performance.”

According to the report:

Choice means a person should be the primary author of his or her own life and have access to the information and supports needed to thrive.
Connection will give people opportunities to connect with each other, with help and with their community at-large.
Equity will allow all Rhode Islanders to participate fully in society and benefit from available programs and services.
Safety will present older adults and those with disabilities the opportunity to live with dignity, feel secure in their homes and communities and know that their needs will be met.
Performance will ensure that the people served by the Office of Healthy Aging will benefit most when OHA staff members are responsible stewards of resources: make smart investments in line with people’s needs and hold themselves accountable to achieving established goals.

Besides the name change, Jones said, other pluses in the budget for seniors and adults with disabilities include more funding for the CareBreaks Program operated with the Catholic Diocese of Providence. The program is budgeted at $325,000, which is up from $140,000 in the previous spending package and the $300,000 in the 2008 budget.

CareBreaks provides unpaid caregivers a short-term break from the daily responsibility of tending to a disabled child, adult or elder loved one. CareBreaks may be used occasionally or at regularly scheduled times, allowing the caregiver a chance to shop, get medical attention, address personal matters and take a rest or vacation. The increased funding is especially good news for caregivers on the wait list for the program.

In addition, the 2020 budget sustains the $800,000 needed for increased funding levels for senior centers, Meals on Wheels’ $530,000 appropriation and the $5 million for no fare bus passes that was set to expire on July 1.

Furthermore, the budget expands the OHA’s Home & Community Care Co-Pay program to help more elders afford day and at-home care; contains an independent provider program to promote more choice for at-home care and create new work force opportunities; and raises wages for direct support workers for a fourth consecutive year.

Among the legislative highlights cited by Jones is a bill called “The Notebook Law,” legislation dubbed that for the film the “The Notebook,” a movie about Alzheimer’s disease. Under the bill, spouses of Alzheimer’s patients will be allowed to live in dementia units in long-term care facilities. The legislation was sent to Gov. Gina Raimondo for her signature.

Jones also cited the Senior Savings Protection Act, which would require certain individuals to report the occurrence or suspected occurrence of financial exploitation of people age 60 or older and persons who have a disability between the ages of 18 and 59.

According to the bill, if a qualified individual, a person associated with a broker-dealer who serves in a supervisory, compliance or legal capacity believes that financial exploitation is taking place or being attempted, the individual must notify the Department of Business Regulation (DBR), OHA and law enforcement. The individual may also alert immediate family members, legal guardians, conservators or agents under a power of attorney of the person possibly being exploited.

The legislation also allows qualified individuals to hold transactions that they believe may be involved with financial exploitation and calls for the DBR and OHA to develop websites that include training resources to assist in the prevention and detection of fraud against the elderly and the disabled. The bill was sent to the governor for signing.

Another piece of legislation Jones said will benefit seniors is a bill that strengthens a law that requires people who have reasonable cause to believe an elderly person is being abused, neglected or mistreated to report it to the OHA, which will notify law enforcement of the incident if appropriate.

Previously, health care providers and numerous types of workers who come into contact with elderly or disabled people in health care facilities were required to report suspected abuse or neglect within 24 hours.

The legislation, which Raimondo signed and is already effective, adds a section of law requiring reporting of suspected abuse, exploitation, neglect or self-neglect of people over age 60 regardless of whether they live in a health care facility. It also expands the list of those required to report suspected abuse to include physician assistants and probation officers and protects employees who report abuse from liability (unless they are found to be a perpetrator) or negative consequences at work for reporting abuse or neglect.

The bill was backed by the Senate’s Special Task Force to Study Elderly Abuse and Financial Exploitation, which started work in December to study the prevalence and impact of elder abuse and financial exploitation and recently issued a final report.

Jones said the 2019 legislative session was “fairly good” for her office. Let’s hope it was very beneficial for seniors.