Seniors seeking legislative clout

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 5:45pm

Almost everyone in the room had a story of having to care for an elderly parents or relative. Some of the stories were happy ones, others were not.

But now the people telling the stories about their parents find themselves facing the same dilemma: who is going to care for them when they can no longer do so for themselves?

The big difference is that the former stories almost invariably took place on the mainland. These seniors live on Block Island, where elder care is scant. There are no institutions or agencies in place designed for long-term, in place aging.

These were stories that representatives from a group called Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island, which helps turn senior activism into political clout so that legislation that positively impacts the senior population will get passed in the Rhode Island General Assembly.

“We’re trying to build more political power for seniors,” said Executive Director Bill Flynn to a group of seniors that had assembled at the Community Center on May 3. It’s a natural coalition to put into a solid voting bloc, said Flynn, because “seniors vote more often and pay more attention to issues.” He called the state’s senior population, at this point, “more like potential power, because power has to be organized. To get some of the things we want, the first step is to build relationships.”

One way to learn what is needed by the senior population is to listen to its stories, which is what Flynn and two other representatives from the Senior Agenda Coalition did with the Block Island seniors.

“We learn more about each other by listening to a narrative that happened,” said Flynn. He added, after some of the stories were told, that “if you had listened to opinions, you wouldn’t have remembered them as well as you remembered the stories.

He suggested that the storytellers keep opinions out of it and just state the facts.

For Sandy Kelly and helping to care for her parents, she said that a big part of aging with dignity was to keep family “in their homes as long as possible.”

Tom Doyle said that the primary responsibility of family is “looking after your loved ones both economically and physically.”

Pat Doyle said that if looking out for family members is not possible on Block Island, “what is plan B? If that doesn’t work out there is no plan B.”

Dottie Graham said that issues for seniors living on Block Island are exacerbated because “no one serves Block Island. We desperately, desperately need some connection to an agency.”

Beth Tengwall mused about the future. “When we get to that point, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said.

After the stories had been told, Pat Doyle wondered if they served their purpose. She told the story of the most recent candidates’ night on Block Island, when the candidates were asked about their ideas for assisting the island’s senior population.

Doyle said there were stories about caring for one of their own family members, but the conclusion was, “We did it. We did it on our own,” she said. In other words, they did not need institutional help. “But the reality is we don’t get services out here,” Doyle said.

Flynn was informed that about 50 percent of the island’s population is seniors and yet receives virtually no services in spite of the tax dollars that are generated here during the summer.

“We make a ton of money in the summer and send it all to the ‘golden dome’ and we get none of it,” said Graham.

“The strategy here is to learn and then put some heat on the state,” said Flynn.

To learn more about Senior Agency Coalition, visit