Federal cuts devastate Maine elderly services

By Noëlle Merrill, Special to the BDN
Posted April 10, 2013, at 11 a.m.

As the executive director of Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Bangor, which strives every day to serve an ever-increasing elderly population and those who care for them, I feel compelled to share the emotional and mental impact that sequestration has had on us. Sequestration refers to the across-the-board mandatory spending cuts, to all but a few exempted entities, by the federal government in an attempt to reduce annual budget deficits.

I am confused because we have not been informed of exactly how much money EAAA will lose. It is now the middle of April, and sequestration officially began on March 1. How do we make an accurate budget with no official numbers?

I am depressed because, based on the estimated financial loss, I have been forced to reduce the hours of 22 full-time staff members by 20 percent. This is very upsetting because our staff’s workloads have not been reduced, just their pay. I feel very apologetic to our dedicated staff who occupy the only line item left to cut in our previous flat and now shrinking budget and apologetic to our clients who still have needs that may go unmet.

I pay homage to my staff because, in spite of the personal hardships this cut in hours has caused, they are here with smiles, ready to serve the people who need our help, as best they can in the limited time they have.

I am empathetic with all the other important service providers nationwide who are experiencing exactly the same thing. Maine is considered the oldest state in the nation, and it’s not getting any younger. We, in the aging services business, have experienced firsthand the increasing numbers of older people coming in or calling for help. In fact, over the past few years, the number of people contacting us for help has doubled.

Their needs have become increasingly basic and serious, including nutritional support, transportation to medical appointments, help with Medicare and prescription drug costs, falls prevention, support and education to avoid long term care (which is very expensive), and education on how to manage chronic disease, which minimizes returns to the hospital.

The federal government recommends that older people utilize community agencies like ours, yet it cuts the funding for our services. How exactly is that supposed to work?

Older Americans Act grants, which are our main source of revenue, simply have not kept pace with continued inflation, and some state grant funds have disappeared altogether or have been reduced to 1997 levels. By way of comparison to today’s prices, minimum wage in 1997 was $5.15. It’s currently $7.50.

We have always actively fundraised and have reached out to municipalities for contributions and allocations. However, these resources are dwindling rapidly. We’ve been frugal and done so much with so little, but everyone has a breaking point. I am just about at mine.

We serve Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock and Washington counties, covering 13,000 square miles. Most of the area is rural and poor with few resources for elders trying to survive in aging homes.

If I thought that the sequestration would reduce the nation’s deficit and would really make all our lives better going forward, I might go back to being the positive upbeat person I was once. But I am not that optimistic.

It truly breaks my heart to close our doors Thursday nights for a “three-day weekend,” knowing that now, days will lapse before we can make return phone calls to seniors who depend on us. It breaks my heart to end home visits. Seniors will become even more isolated, yet these are the ones who need us the most.

I just want to say to everyone, who may not receive the help they need because of our diminished capacity, I am deeply, sincerely sorry.

Noëlle Merrill is executive director of the Eastern Area Agency on Aging.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/04/10/opinion/contributors/federal-cuts-devastate-maine-elderly-services/ printed on September 19, 2014