Silver Haired Legislature Sets Its 2013 Agenda

September 14, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Silver-haired legislatureFor the past three days, the State House in Columbia appeared to be in session again, though no lawmakers were present.

Instead, a private, nonprofit group known as the South Carolina Silver Haired Legislature occupied the Capitol Complex, meeting in the House chamber and in a building where House members’ offices are located.

From Tuesday to Thursday, a group of senior citizens discussed and finally selected three proposals that they want the S.C. General Assembly to consider when lawmakers return to session in January.

The Silver Haired Legislature was created by the General Assembly in 1999 to “identify issues, concerns, and possible solutions for problems affecting the aging population in South Carolina,” according to its enabling legislation. Members of the group must be at least 60 years old.

Since 2007, a total of $85,500 in state tax dollars has been allocated to the organization, The Nerve reported in July.

Group members hold annual meetings each September in the House chamber to craft proposals that they hope will later become law.

“It’s more or less ideas, thoughts to promote the comfort and welfare of seniors,” said group member Henry Hudson of Abbeville.

For this year, the organization selected funding for in-home and community-based services, establishing a select committee on aging, and transportation for seniors as their top three proposals.

Funding for in-home services was a popular topic among members during this week’s meetings. Seniors said such funding would allow them to stay at home instead of in nursing homes.

Most seniors prefer to grow old in familiar surroundings, or “age in place,” as the Silver Haired Legislature’s leader, Marjorie Johnson, who has the title “speaker,” put it.

“Very few people say, ‘As I get older, I look forward to staying at a nursing home,’” she said.

Johnson said nursing homes can be very expensive, noting, “It’s really an expensive deal versus a minimum amount to assist a person at their home.”

She added that creating a committee on aging would better connect silver-haired residents with state legislators.

“We need a more consistent and regular voice established in the Legislature,” she said. “Then we have a better chance of having the needs of the seniors met.”

It’s no secret among state lawmakers that seniors are a powerful voting bloc in South Carolina, which might explain why legislators have been willing to spend tax dollars to allow Silver Haired Legislature members to hold their annual meeting at the State House.

Johnson acknowledged that creating a committee on aging would cost money, citing staffing and record-keeping costs. But she couldn’t provide any specifics.

“Let’s say it’ll require resources,” she said.

As for improving transportation for seniors, Johnson earlier told The Nerve that seniors need a way of getting to places they typically frequent, such as the pharmacy, doctor’s office and grocery store.

“You become a hermit; you become despondent,” she said. “You can’t age in place if you don’t have some type of mobility.”

Johnson also said there is a need for a wheelchair/walker-accessible system for seniors.

“As seniors get older they get less mobile; they need to be accommodated,” she said.

Although the Silver Haired Legislature has three proposals to pitch to the General Assembly at the start of next session, there are no guarantees lawmakers will act on any of them.

The group, for example, has been pushing the transportation proposal for four to five years to no avail, Johnson pointed out.

But whether they live in Charleston or Spartanburg, seniors will be chatting with their lawmakers in their home districts to convince them of the changes they seek, Johnson said.

“We’ll be trying to get citizens to be a part of the cause,” she said. “We’ll be trying to get legislators to put us on the agenda for January.”

Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or derek@thenerve.org.