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The Interview: Hank Greenberg, AARP Maryland state director

Maryland, like the rest of the country, is aging.

The state's 65-and-over population increased by more than 18 percent in the past 10 years to 707,642, according to the U.S. census. This group will only grow as baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1965 — turn grayer.

One of the most vocal advocates for older Americans is the AARP, which represents members who are 50 and older. While Social Security and Medicare have remained priorities for the organization, in Maryland it also focuses on more local issues such as lower electricity rates and reliability standards for utilities.

The Baltimore Sun recently spoke with AARP Maryland state director Hank Greenberg about his chapter's work.

What are some pressing issues facing older Marylanders?

Among the top issues we're very concerned about are long-term care, utilities, retirement security and hunger, and that's not the entire list of issues.

Let's go through the list: What makes long-term care a priority?

AARP did a survey very recently in which it noted that when it comes to long-term care and funding for home- and community-based services, most Marylanders and most Americans who are over 50 want to be able to remain in their own homes as long as they can. That's the No. 1 issue.

It turns out … Maryland is ranked 45th out of 50 states, meaning that we are fifth from the worst in funding. The amount of funding that goes to home- and community-based services in comparison to institutionalized care like nursing homes is very, very low.

Clearly, aging in place is what most people prefer. That's an issue important not only for people who are older, but we are hearing a lot from people who are in their 50s … who have parents who are aging.

When you talk about funding for home- and community-based services, what do you mean exactly?

We're talking about the level of funding that the state provides for older Americans under the [Medicaid] Older Adults Waiver, which provides assistance to help older adults continue to live in their homes with specific health care and respite care services.

Currently, there are 20,000 Marylanders on the waiting list for such services.

When you think about the fact that it costs about half as much to have the same level of care at home as they would in an institution, it makes sense economically and it's what the people want.

Why are utility issues important for older Maryland residents?

Two things that people really care about are high [electricity] costs and reliability — the fact that it takes so long to restore electricity after outages. We know outages are inevitable, but the question is how well are utilities responding to it on two particular levels.

Are they giving customers timely and accurate information? That's a concern to us because we're hearing about it from our members. They're not getting information, [or when they get it] it's not accurate.

And then the second thing we're concerned about is … standards. We want to strengthen the standards that [utilities] must adhere to and make sure if they don't adhere to them, any fines … don't come from the pockets of ratepayers but come from the pockets of the companies and shareholders.

We want to see transparency with respect to information and accountability with respect to their performance.

What are the concerns of older Americans when it comes to retirement security, especially after the Great Recession?

The No. 1 priority we had in the last few months was to make sure there were no cuts to Social Security or to Medicare as part of the deficit-reduction act of Congress. Because Medicare and Social Security are cornerstones of retirement security, it's really important that we make it very clear that [cutting them is] not how you reduce the deficit.

People might not assume that hunger is a top priority for older Americans. What are you seeing?

In fact, it's one of the things that people are surprised about when they hear it's an issue that's on the AARP agenda: combating hunger among older Americans.

Older Americans are becoming a larger and larger percentage of the people who are facing hunger every day in this country. That's a rather amazing fact.

There are nationwide 9 million older Americans who are at risk of hunger, who are forced to skip meals or buy low-quality food.

We're trying to work with partners who are very involved with this, like the Maryland Hunger Solutions. And we're working with them and others, including the Maryland Food Access and Nutrition Network, to increase funding and also to make sure we increase enrollments to [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps].

Why are we seeing an increase?

I think it's fair to say that the economy now has had a very negative effect on everyone, including older Marylanders.

People who are older have had a difficult time making ends meet, and people in their 50s had a very high unemployment rate in the last couple of years. … People lost equity in their homes, lost their savings and they're facing some terrific challenges. And at the same time, their costs have increased, whether it's for utilities or other costs.

Why should everyone care about issues affecting older Americans?

First of all, what we do we do for all people.

When it comes to older folks, they have worked their entire lives and paid into … Social Security and Medicare with an expectation and promise. That should be honored.

When it comes to people in the sandwich generation — people who are in their 50s [who are squeezed between aging parents and kids] — they're being hit because of high unemployment. A lot of work needs to be done with older workers, and one of our first projects will be to facilitate a conference to engage human resources officials on the value of older workers.

Folks who are in their midlife are in many cases facing pressures of family, [from] both their parents and their kids. … [They are] navigating what is a difficult time right now.

One of the things we're looking to do is to be a resource for anyone who's looking to figure out what's next. What can we do to help fulfill people's aspirations?


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