Jack Sherrill spent 2 1/2 years nursing his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife to a gentle death in their Leisure World home. Fueled by the love of a six-decade marriage, he bathed her, fed her and cared for her with no help from Medicare.
When she died two years ago, the 85-year-old retiree with hearing aids easily could have given himself a rest. Instead, Sherrill plugged into a network of active seniors riding the wave of an elder power movement that, though fragmented, is expected to become increasingly critical as America ages.
Now an assemblyman with the California Senior Legislature, Sherrill is pushing for a federal bill that would make Medicare pay for patients like his wife to be treated at home, avoiding costly and often depressing institutionalization that Medicare already covers.
“If you’ve ever visited these hospitals where Alzheimer’s patients are, they’re constantly in a state of fear,” Sherrill said. “I couldn’t make a proposal unless I was a legislator. So I had to get with it and become a senior assemblyman.”
The advisory body of elected seniors has made the proposal one of its top 1997 priorities. So far, no state or federal legislators have agreed to author the bill, but the group will continue to stress the issue’s importance. And from the organization’s track record, there’s a decent chance that Sherrill’s ideas could become law.
Not traditionally seen as a hotbed of progressive activism, Orange County nevertheless has given rise to a phalanx of senior activists who have helped push some key state laws for the aging.
Last week, more than a dozen years of planning by some of them bore fruit as volunteers convened in Washington for the first session of the National Silver-Haired Congress, an advisory body meant to mirror the California Senior Legislature on a national level.
As the baby boomers gray, it is estimated that 25% of the nation’s population will be 55 or older by 2010. Major changes loom in Medicare and Social Security. And, on the state level, the first overhaul of the Older Californians Act in 15 years took effect in January, placing a host of long-term care programs in the hands of county agencies and making local activism more important than ever.
All these trends combined, senior analysts say, mean involvement by people like Sherrill is more essential than ever if older Americans are to be heard.
“As the society is aging, there are more problems on the horizon,” said Peggy Weatherspoon, director of Orange County’s Area Agency on Aging, one of 33 in the state that help coordinate senior volunteers and run elections for the Senior Legislature.
“Just the sheer number of seniors dictates responsiveness,” she said. “I see advocacy by seniors as the success story.”
The elder power movement gained momentum two decades ago, spurred in large part by Neel Buell, a lanky, grinning retiree who turned 82 this year and heads the emeritus program for senior education at Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley.
Buell had already participated twice in the White House Conference on Aging when he heard that former state Sen. Henry Mello (D-Watsonville) was hoping to create an advisory body of seniors that would mirror the state Legislature.
In 1980, Mello and Buell launched the California Senior Legislature together, and what began as a group of neophytes struggling to learn Roberts Rules of Order quickly evolved into a powerful lobby.
Bills proposed by the Senior Legislature and later enacted include several dealing with nursing home reform, adult day health centers and the creation and funding of Alzheimer’s research centers like the one at UC Irvine.
“Our batting average for the first four or five years was at least 7 out of 10,” said Buell, who lives in Costa Mesa. “That was remarkable. No lobbying group ever came close to that.”
Buell’s proposals in the early 1980s led to legislation providing Medicare funding for care of blind and disabled people in their homes and sketched out the basics for long-term care in nursing homes.
Other key bills also stemmed from Orange County’s participation in the Senior Legislature.
Ed Wolfe, 77, of Newport Beach crafted a 1992 proposal that forced cities sitting on redevelopment funds targeted for senior housing to use the money or lose it. Then-state Sen. Marion Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) proposed Wolfe’s idea and it passed into law.
“It’s love’s labor,” said Wolfe, who stepped down from the Senior Legislature and now volunteers for the American Association of Retired Persons.
The local presence in Sacramento senior advocacy circles remains strong today.
“We have quite a star-studded cast from Orange County,” said Peggy Shuchter, government affairs coordinator for the California Commission on Aging and the California Senior Legislature. “We were joking about an Orange County coup this year.”
They are people like John Kumbera, a retired Brea salesman who, at 75, heads the Senior Legislature’s joint rules committee, putting in hundreds of hours of time and a good chunk of his own money.
Kumbera’s job: to make the Senior Legislature run, to pool proposals from participants and, like other legislators, to visit seniors for input.
“This year, my goals are small: to get more people active in the California Senior Legislature,” Kumbera said. “Everybody’s an expert on something, and they are needed.”
There is Anna Boyce, a 67-year-old occupational health nurse from Mission Viejo who sits on both the California Senior Legislature and the National Silver-Haired Congress and pushes for laws to guarantee health care and protection from abuse for fellow seniors.
Boyce twice found a legislator to carry a proposal legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. Both bills passed the state Legislature but were vetoed by the governor. The backing of the Senior Legislature, however, helped Boyce and others get the proposal on last November’s ballot as the successful Proposition 215.
“I expected to work along with other seniors and more or less follow,” Boyce said. “I certainly never expected this to happen, that I would promote an idea and it would become law. I’m very, very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
This year, another Boyce idea has made it into the California Senior Legislature’s top 10 list. It would require health care facilities to provide “adequate staff that speak the same primary language as the majority of patients” and provide training for those employees who don’t.
Other priority proposals deal with elder abuse, in-home care, public transportation in rural areas and respite care. Sherrill’s proposal, dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, is one of four selected by the Senior Legislature as a top federal priority.
Another active Orange County powerhouse is Brenda Ross, 81, former president of the county’s Senior Citizens Advisory Council and current president of the Triple A Council of California, which oversees all 33 Area Agencies on Aging in the state.
“When I first retired in 1981 I went to a meeting at Coastline Community College and Neel Buell was saying, ‘We need volunteers,’ ” said Ross, a former associate dean of continuing medical education at UC Irvine.
“I said, ‘Here I am.’ And I’ve been involved every since.”
Ross said her group’s priorities this year include securing money for programs designed to care for the frail elderly in their homes, programs that were outlined in the state’s Older Californians Act but never implemented in many counties.
After more than a decade of planning, also with Buell at the helm, the first National Silver-Haired Congress met last week in Washington to craft an agenda.
Several Orange County participants, including Boyce, made the trip at their own expense to take part in the first session of the Congress, meant to mirror the real thing with 100 senators and 435 representatives.
“People used to think that you reached a certain age and you were supposed to be quiet,” Boyce said. “You were supposed to be grateful that you had a place to sit and eat. Well, we’re alive and we’re still to be reckoned with.”
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How to Get Involved
Those seeking information on volunteer opportunities or services for seniors can call the county’s Area Agency on Aging at (714) 567-7500 or (800) 510-2020.
Interested seniors should contact the agency for information on any of the following:
* Senior Citizens Advisory Council of Orange County
Advises the Board of Supervisors, Community Services Agency and Area Agency on Aging on matters affecting older adults. Advocates on behalf of seniors. Committees deal with housing, health, transportation, legislation and nutrition.
* California Senior Legislature
County Area Agency on Aging runs elections for local representatives. Orange County has two senators and five assembly members. Each representative submits at least two proposals per year, which are voted on by both houses of the senior legislature in October. Among those passing, 10 are picked as state priorities and four as federal priorities. A legislative team takes those around to state and federal legislators for help in writing bills. Twenty-two other states have similar bodies.
* National Silver-Haired Congress
Had been meeting as an advocacy group, but convened in Washington this year for the first time to address national issues. Meant to mirror national Congress, has 435 representatives and 100 senators.