Vantage Point: AARP argues upstate N.Y.'s rural seniors need more support

AARP New York is lobbying the state for millions of dollars in new spending for seniors living in rural upstate including Otsego, Chenango, Schoharie and Delaware counties.

To back up the request, the nonprofit is out with a report that says older folks living in rural areas are sicker, more disabled, have inadequate transportation to health care, limited access to nutritious food, suffer from social isolation, and are short changed when it comes to high-speed Internet.

And AARP NY says those conditions lead to premature death from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, respiratory disease and stroke.

AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, advocates for folks 50 and older.

The organization’s proposed solutions call for Albany to spend more money on 13 programs. They include state tax credits for family caregivers, money for in-home health care workers, increased funding for nutrition programs, and subsidies for Internet services.

AARP NY has not said how much these programs would cost or who would pay for them.

So, are upstate seniors that bad off?

AARP New York’s director Beth Finkel told me in a phone interview that rural seniors are “more isolated” than their urban counterparts and because of isolation “there has been more deaths of rural residents than of city residents.” She added, “being isolated is the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

However, not everyone sees the situation as dire. Two local experts on aging say some of the problems identified in the report may be real but are overblown, and other items are being adequately dealt with.

Terri Whitney, director of Delaware County’s Office for the Aging, said in a phone call her agency is able to mitigate all of the issues raised by AARP NY except social isolation.

“If somebody contacts us reaching out for help, we can address issues such as medical transportation,” Whitney said.

The county relies on neighbors helping neighbors. “We have a medical transportation system for non-emergency purposes. We utilize a core of volunteer drivers who take people from their house to their doctor’s appointments or to pick up medical prescriptions,” Whitney said.

Regarding food, the county offers “shopping assistance so that the elderly can get the food they need or we can deliver meals to homes," she said.

When it comes to high-speed Internet, Whitney acknowledges that is an issue.

“There are many spots around the county where one can’t get internet. And for a lot of folks, if it is available, they can’t afford it," she said.

Meanwhile, in Otsego County, Tamie Reed, director of the county’s Office for the Aging, told me rural residents “are not softies. They’re more self sufficient, more independent.”

But Reed said “many of the issues are true and valid,” so she discussed the report with the county Board of Representatives.

“I think the report did a really great job of providing information for decision makers,” Reed said.

She also points out money is always a problem. “We get a smaller pot of funding because we’re smaller communities. And it also costs twice as much to deliver services in these smaller communities.”

Generally speaking, “we don’t do well preparing for the aging process and making sure people can live independently,” she said.

One can’t live independently without enough money. And according to the latest government data living costs are rising — fast. The U.S. Labor Department said annual inflation is 6.2%. That’s a 31-year high with food, housing, gasoline and natural gas all rising more that forecast.

AARP’s Beth Finkel said inflation is a problem for seniors living on fixed incomes.

The solution, according to Finkel, is higher Social Security payments. “AARP is a strong advocate for changing the formula for Social Security. This year many people on Social Security are going to see a bigger bump for next year because of inflation. Is that enough? No,” she said.

No, indeed. Even the nation’s best-known senior citizen has taken notice. “Inflation hurts Americans' pocketbooks, and reversing this trend is a top priority for me,” said President Joe Biden, who just turned 79. 

Don Mathisen is a journalist living in Oneonta. Email him at onewsdm@gmail.com.

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