In some towns, caregivers can ease the financial burden of dementia care by getting aid from public programs for the elderly. But funding varies widely by county and state. That’s often because certain elected officials champion the interests of the elderly. In Carbon County PA, where I live, elders were helped for many years by Charles Getz, a county commissioner who just retired from public office. I talked with Mr. Getz to learn how and why he supported elder programs.
Although Mr. Getz owns several private businesses — including a horse farm and a bus company — he spent much of his life in public service. In 1977 he won his first election as a local township supervisor. He was later elected to office as a county commissioner. Though he won his final election in November 2011, he chose to retire before serving his term. Mr. Getz felt that the mood during his final campaign season was nasty and divisive, so he opted to retire before a negative political environment could disrupt the quality of his family life.
Mr. Getz became a champion of services for seniors partly because he had been raised to respect the elderly. He attended a one-room school house for his first years of elementary education and spent a lot of time with older people who shared knowledge he came to value. Mr. Getz was also deeply affected by the experience of looking after his own mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. With the help of his wife and short weekly visits from a nursing aide, they cared for his mother at their home until the end of her life at age 86. Getz was also distressed by the economic plight of elders in his district. When seniors submitted applications to enter Weatherwood, a county-funded home for the aged, they were required to declare their annual earnings. Mr. Getz was shocked at the tiny income on which many elders survived.
During the annual county budgeting process, Mr. Getz’ advocacy for elder care funding was aided by the director of the county’s Agency on Aging. She was zealous in her efforts to educate officials about the need for services and she took steps to cuts costs whenever possible. It was wise, Getz felt, to fund services that helped seniors live safely in their homes for a long time. Many residents in his district had worked hard in coal mines or mills and bought homes in tight-knit communities with strong support networks. Programs that helped them stay at home also cost much less than publicly-funded nursing homes.
Today the number of elderly residents in Carbon County continues to rise. I asked Mr. Getz if he felt the county was prepared for the rapid growth of the elderly population. He says, “The network of services and providers is strong” but “elected officials will be forced to make hard choices” if the current trend of cutting taxes and public services continues. Eventually, he says, programs “will reach a point where costs cannot be cut further” and needs will not diminish. He feels that the plight of those who have worked hard all their lives should not be neglected. While in office, Mr. Getz listened to constituents when they spoke to him about urgent issues and programs they valued. He believes that government functions best when all branches (local, state and federal) work together. So the bottom line on funding for elder programs is this: To protect public programs that help your loved one — or help you as a caregiver — you must share your views with all candidates running for office during election season.