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Community Perspective

‘Take care of the old person you’re going to become’

On his 100th birthday, Tlingit pastor Dr. Walter Soboleff advised youth at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. In a 2011 KTOO story, he recalled his message: “I was in the fifth grade, and the teacher said, ‘Take care of the old person you’re going to become.’ And I thought what a funny talk to give us. But I never forgot it. It was one of the best messages I’ve ever heard. Take care of the old person you’re going to become. Here I am.”

This is the current notice on the state’s Alaska Department of Health and Social Services website: “July 1, 2019 — Under the FY 2020 budget signed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the Alaska Senior Benefits Payment Program will end July 1 and payments for FY 2020 will not occur. With the state facing the challenge of aligning current state revenues with state expenditures, this program is being eliminated to contain costs and reduce dependence of individuals on state funds. Repealing the Senior Benefits Payment Program will reduce the administrative and financial burden on state resources.”

This shows blatant disregard of proper notice — some poor elders will immediately and permanently lose up to 25% of their monthly income. And it will not “reduce dependence of individuals on state funds.” The individuals in question are dependent, not because of state funds but because age has a tendency to do this to all who live long enough. Low-income seniors will not suddenly become less dependent by abruptly losing a crucial source of financial security without notice.

The governor said it shouldn’t be a problem for these low-income, vulnerable older Alaskans because they will get a larger permanent fund dividend. However, consider this:

• These seniors must go through July, August, September, perhaps part of October, before they see a PFD. They live month to month, count every penny, and we expect them to sustain the impact of losing up to $1,000 over that time?

• The loss of this crucial support acts as a tax specifically on the poorest and oldest of Alaskans. No other Alaskans are penalized like this. No one else must give up a chunk of their income to receive a PFD.

• Many forgo a PFD altogether so they’re not ineligible for income-based assistance like food and heating programs.

• Gov. Dunleavy says this will “reduce the administrative and financial burden on state resources.” The most any Senior Benefits Payment Program beneficiary receives is $250 per month. If that person can no longer afford to live independently and must move out of their home and into assisted living, the cost would be somewhere between $4,000 to $9,000 per month. Skilled nursing care — a nursing home — costs close to $25,000 per month in Alaska. Most often this cost is assumed by the state Medicaid program. No reduction of administrative and financial burden here.

In all of this, there is an apparent contempt for the oldest members of our community. Some call them “the aging.” But Gov. Dunleavy is aging; the OMB director is aging; commissioners are aging; all the legislators are aging; Republicans and Democrats and unaffiliated are all aging; liberals and conservatives are all aging; people of every color and gender are aging; children are aging; the wealthy and the needy are aging; workers and business owners are aging; neighbors and friends are aging; petroleum workers and farmers are aging; doctors and mechanics are aging. In fact, nobody is not aging. All of us, every Alaskan, is aging just as fast as the other. And someday that senior who could have sustained themselves independently with the Senior Benefits Payment Program, that person will be you or me.

We should not turn our heads away from our elders. We should not treat them as burdensome. We should look beyond the dependencies and pay very close attention to them. We should learn everything we possibly can from them. We should take care of the old person we’re going to become.

Ken Helander is advocacy director for AARP Alaska.

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