Older activists won't sit quietly when it comes to issues affecting elderly

Speaking out for seniors

Posted: Tuesday, March 04, 2003

NEW YORK -- It's not always easy for these demonstrators to attend meetings and rallies. Some have aches and pains. Others must depend on a van service, having given up driving and public transportation.

But when they get where they're going, the gray-haired activists of the Joint Public Affairs Committee for Older Adults have plenty to say. Neither age nor infirmity keeps them from speaking out on issues affecting the elderly, from budget cuts to prescription drug costs.

''I intend to do a lot until the day when I can't walk,'' said Louise Sharpe, a 76-year-old retired nurse who rides the subway from her home in the Bronx to events in Manhattan.

The group recently marked 25 years since its founding as an outgrowth of the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged. With members ranging in age from 55 to 90-plus, it is active in more than 700 senior centers and community groups throughout the city.

''Wherever we go, we're treated with respect and attention,'' said Dorothy Epstein, 89, a longtime member and adviser who founded a course that teaches seniors advocacy skills. ''We know we can't appeal on the basis of emotion alone. We must have our facts and we must have our numbers.''

Through letter-writing campaigns and phone calls, the group, known as JPAC, has taken on drug companies, banks, funeral services and home loan programs.

Members take a stand on Social Security and Medicare -- ''hot-button'' issues that have been a focus for senior-citizen organizing efforts around the country, according to John B. Williamson, a sociology professor at Boston College and author of ''The Senior Rights Movement: Framing the Policy Debate in America.''

Williamson suggested Republicans have backed off a proposal to partially privatize Social Security, in part, because they feared seniors would mobilize against it. ''There are a few key issues where it's risky for people to get on the wrong side of seniors, and that's been a fascinating thing to watch,'' he said.

Experts say it is difficult to estimate how much of the nation's growing senior population is politically active, and they are quick to point out that seniors have diverse interests and vote in patterns similar to those seen in the general population.

But the Gray Panthers, another senior advocacy group, claims 20,000 members, and smaller organizations, like the Raging Grannies of Seattle, modeled after a Cana-dian group, are active around the country.

The nation's largest organization for older adults, AARP, has a membership of 35 million, although not all members consider themselves activists.

Many activist groups have benefited from the Internet, which has allowed them to establish worldwide e-mail lists known as list-serves and easily link with other organizations. JPAC offers classes in computer skills, and some members are learning to use the Internet.

Still, for much of its organizing, the group relies on phone calls, letters and delegations that regularly travel to Albany to meet with lawmakers face to face.

JPAC members took part in successful lobbying for city-funded Access-A-Ride, a van service for the elderly and disabled, and for a program to provide prescription drug coverage for low-income seniors.

''I think that as our population ages, and as the issues of the senior community become more acute, their voice becomes an even stronger and more meaningful one,'' said state Sen. Carl Kruger, who is helping members deal with traffic safety problems near a senior housing complex in Brook-lyn.

As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg warns New Yorkers of coming fiscal sacrifices, JPAC members have spoken against cutbacks in senior programs.

A fired-up group demonstrated at City Hall last fall against proposals to eliminate some senior centers and meal programs, not to mention JPAC's own city funding. Their picture in the Daily News was captioned, ''Gray Wrath.''

Bloomberg backed away from the closings in late January, saying he thought the city could preserve the senior centers after all.

Epstein's activism course -- called the Institute for Senior Action -- has been instrumental in expanding the ranks of JPAC activists since it was founded in 1994. The six-week class includes lectures on writing skills, public speaking and conducting meetings.

Seventy-four-year-old Shirley Ehrlick-man, one of the first to take the course, has stayed active with JPAC since her graduation.

''It's not only because I'm a senior and these issues are hurting me,'' Ehrlickman said. ''I know that I'm one of millions of others in my position.''

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On the Net:

Joint Public Affairs Committee for Older Adults: http://www.jpac.org



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