Older Americans urged to tell candidates of their concerns

Slowly the camera pans the room of an older American -- dresser, chair, a hospital bed in which someone lies facing the other direction. Then a voice says: ``Join the debate. Ask questions now. And vote.'' It is a different kind of political advertisement now being seen in six states and one of two TV ads sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The ad has three purposes:

To attempt to have an effect in Senate elections in the six states, by making candidates aware of a prime concern of older Americans: long-term health care.

To gain experience for a planned 50-state effort to raise the concerns of Americans of retirement age during the presidential election of 1988.

To begin to build nationwide support for future federal action to deal with one of the most serious concerns of elderly Americans -- the prospect that the enormous costs of long-term health care could drive them, or their spouses, into poverty.

The ads are being targeted at six states with Senate races in which no incumbent is seeking reelection. John Rother, director of AARP's Legislative, Research, and Public Policy Division, says, ``We've already seen indications that the campaigns are planning to address these issues,'' including long-term health care, which are raised by AARP. With 23 million members, AARP is the largest US organization of older Americans.

The TV commercials are just one element of AARP's election campaign this year. The organization has produced two radio commercials. And it has interviewed the Senate candidates in the six states for their views on issues of interest to the elderly, then printed the candidates' views in publications distributed to AARP members. The organization stresses that its effort is nonpartisan, that it is not supporting or opposing parties nor individual candidates.

In the presidential election year of 1988 the organization plans to take its effort nationwide.

Older Americans have long had political clout far beyond their numbers, because they vote in considerably higher percentages than the citizenry at large. For instance, although they are only 17 percent of the population, they constitute some 40 percent of voters, says Cyrus Brickfield, AARP's executive director.

It is no coincidence that AARP has made health care the principal issue in its two television commercials. Mr. Brickfield, like many others in Washington interested in domestic social issues, says he believes that ``how to handle and finance long-term care'' for ill people, meaning primarily the elderly, will be a major subject of discussion and possible government action in the next few years.

In the long term, AARP is trying through its commercials and political campaign, to begin to build support among its members -- and pressure from them -- for some sort of government program that will provide financial and other assistance to families dealing with the expensive and difficult problem of caring for a relative during lengthy illness. Some such pressure already exists from the American public, including both elderly Americans concerned that long-term care costs could drive them into poverty, and middle-aged children, concerned about costs and the possible need to provide physical care as well as hold down their jobs.

Despite the many federal and state programs to aid ill persons, Brickfield notes, ``80 percent of all health care'' effort ``is still delivered by the family.''

A federal government commission, chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen, is to report by Dec. 31 on ways to deal with the problem of long-term care, or catastrophic illness, as the issue is sometimes called.

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