Silver-Haired Legislatures work for issues of the elderly

When Ray McGee of Piedmont arrived in Jefferson City for his first term in Missouri's Silver-Haired Legislature, he expected to find a bunch of senior citizens who "would just play House." He soon found that wasn't true.

"Most of the people there are quite serious about what they are doing," says Judge McGee of the mock legislature. "We try to bring about the passage of laws in our group that we want the real legislature to handle, and then we have a rather effective organization that works with what we've done trying to sell it to the real legislature."

At first it sounds like a public relations gimick -- senior citizens taking over the legislature. But Silver-Haired Legislatures are much more than that. Since Missouri's first in 1972, mock legislatures of older men and women there, in Florida, Georgia, and Massachusetts have been responsible for the passage of dozens of new state laws -- 20 in Florida alone -- on issues of the elderly. Equally as important is the increasing number of active advocates for the elderly that have resulted, as participants continue to fight for things they fell are important.

Sandra Hamilton helped establish Florida's Silver-Haired Legislature in 1978. Now an assistant to Massachusetts Secretary of Elder Affairs Thomas Dr. H. D. Mahoney, she is directing the Massachusetts program. With 16 percent of the state population over 60, she says, Dr. Mahoney felt it was appropriate that such a program be started. In 1980's special election, over 54,000 votes from persons over 60 were cast, and 200 Silver-Haired Legislators chosen for a 3-day session.

"For many of them it was their first real experience with the legislative process," Ms. Hamilton says. "As it is with many of us, they may be aware of how it works but have no real practical experience with it; most of us just sit back and watch, not getting involved."

Raymond Chace, a retired lobbyist for the New Haven and Penn Central Railroads was elected speaker of the House. He admits he had never done anything for the elderly before and probably wouldn't have gotten involved had his wife not read about the program in the paper and suggested he might be able to help out. After getting his nomination papers signed by the required 50 people over 60 years old, he became an official candidate, and ran unopposed. He says what impressed him when he got to Boston was the intense feelings of the participants."

"This was a serious thing," he says. "You wouldn't believe how serious."

The "legislature" divided into six committees: Commerce and Labor; Education and Housing; Health; Human Services and Elder Affairs; Ways and Means; and General Legislation. They then drafted bills which were voted on by the mock House and Senate. Twelve "priority" bills were approved and presented to the state legislature and Gov. Edward J. King. The bills were referred to committee , says Ms. Hamilton, and three have already been reported out favorably.

In Georgia, says Barbara Clankscales of the Department of Human Resources, the Silver-Haired Legislature sessions have dealt with such things as lowering taxes on homes, food, and drugs for the elderly; crimes against elderly and handicapped persons; and health care. After the 1979 session, the Georgia legislature passed a Silver-Haired Legislature priority bill calling for a study of transportation needs of the elderly. It also enacted into law a more comprehensive version of a nursing home bill of rights than one passed by their elder counterparts. Seven more bills from the 1980 session are now being considered.

Vicky Mahon of Missouri's Aging and Adult Services Department says there, too , Silver-Haired Legislature action is noticed.

"The legislature pays a lot of attention . . . ," she says. "They stumble all over themselves to sponsor a bill the Silver-Haired Legislature has deemed a priority, particulary, I think because Missouri has a high percentage of elderly people. It's a big constituency . . . so the legislators take them very seriously."

Judge McGee points out another reason: strong lobbying by Silver-Haired Legislators.

"They learn very quickly to work with those in the legislature who are oriented in our direction. . . . We have several of them up there [at the capitol] who are quite sensitive to the needs of the older people."

That involvement with those in the legislature is a key aspect of the programs. Most Silver-Haired Legislators do not cease active involvement with the legislative process once their brief term is over. Joyce Jenkins, now in charge of the Florida program, says it is geared toward an overall picture of advocacy --how to get involved with local community needs and use radio, TV, and newspapers.

Raymond Chace is now a vocal advocate on issues of the elderly, talking specifically about how fellow senior citizens can support Silver-Haired Legislature bills being studied by the state legislature. At one meeting he says, the discussion really got hot.

"There must have been about 75 or 80 old people there, and we were going at it good," he says with relish. "After it was all over, the president of the group came over and said, 'My, I never saw so much excitement and fun in my life!'"

He pauses, then says earnestly, "You see, these people are not without knowledge of bills. They just never get the chance. . . . Lots of times we think of citizens, not just elderly citizens, as being devoid of interest. That's not true. Give them a shot on the floor sometime and see how interested they are!"

He's not the only Silver-Haired Legislator getting involved. Another woman is drumming up support in her western Massachusetts town for a bill being studied by the Ways and Means committee. Not only has she gotten people to make the long trek to Boston to show support for the bill, she's also gone to the banks in her town and persuated them to help pay for buses to take them.

But perhaps the best example of a Silver Haired Legislator in action is Tomi Crofut of Okaloosa County, Fla. A widow, she became aware of the problems of the elderly -- especially the poor and rural elderly -- though a job with Vista. In 1978 she read about the mock legislature, and although she wasn't sure it would amount to anything, tried to garner support for it."

"I was on the back of a pickup truck in the northern end of the county at an annual picnic for the seniors," she says. "I was encouraging -- looking for people to run for this innovative program. I remember saying I thought it was probably just a crumb being thrown out to appease the elderly plurality, but I was certain there was somebody out there who could take that crumb and knead it into a loaf of bread and maybe a piece of cake on the side. Then it dawned on me that I would be 60 in time for people to vote for me. I asked them if they would consider that -- that I would go see if I couldn't kick up some dust and excitement, money, whatever. So I went down."

And kicked up some dust. Not only was she chosen speaker of the House, after the session ended, she decided to stay in Tallahassee to make sure the Florida legislators paid attention to the bills the Silver-Haired Legislature has deemed important. Then she realized that not all the bills required legislative action. Some could be administratively okayed by the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, the governor of his cabinet.

"I thought while I was waiting for the legislative session to start that I would just go and call on all those employees of mine as a taxpayer," she says firmly. "I didn't have any fears -- with God on your side you don't have anything to fear anyway. So I just called on them in turn -- the commissioner of insurance, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of education. . . ."

She also attended political rallies, questioning the candidates about their stands on elderly issues. While she doesn't take credit for it all, she says it was exciting to see how responsive the candidates were.

"Every one of the candidates running for governor of this state eventually came out with a strong position paper on the elderly. And I'll tell you something more remarkable than that. In this county, from a mayor of a small community to a city councilman, to a county commissioner, whatever -- there hasn't been one of them since this Silver-Haired Legislature started that they don't have something in their platform about concern for the elderly."

In addition, of the 28 nonduplicated bills that the Silver-Haired Legislature came up with in its first two years, 20 were enacted into law 16 passed by statute and 4 administratively by the governor and his cabinet.

Mrs. Crofut is now registered as a lobbyist with the Good People's Lobby -- a coalition of various people like herself, the Association of Homes for the Aged, Florida University Student Governments, National Retired Teachers Association, and Catholic Social Services. She admits frankly that her activism, spurred by her terms in the Silver-Haired Legislature, is a labor of love.

"I'm deeply committed," she says quietly. "This is a door I've walked through and I'm staying with it as long as I fell that's where the need is. I fell really great. I've spent a great deal of my own time and funds, but that just a little priority that I've put on myself."

Meanwhile, for those in states without a Silver-Haired Legislature there may be hope, thanks to US Rep. claude Pepper. Although the White House Conference on Aging, held every 10 years, will meet in Washington in December 1981, Mr. Pepper, who chairs the House Comittee on Aging, also seeks to have a national Silver-Haired Legislature as a forum for elder issues. This could mean 435 elder congressmen and 100 senior senators elected from districts coinciding with those of members of Congress.

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