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Seniors tell candidates: Listen here

The Baltimore Sun

Between hands of gin rummy at the Liberty Senior Center in Randallstown, Elena Wermers and her friend Miki Welsh banter about the presidential candidates who seemingly have taken over their television screens and local newspaper columns.

"They keep saying they're looking for the younger vote," said Welsh, 79, of Owings Mills. "What about the older vote?"

"The younger ones will vote for the younger [candidates]," agreed Wermers, 78, of Randallstown, "but they've got to get them out to vote. Us seniors will get out to vote, even if we have to use a wheelchair."

Several of the presidential candidates have made a point of targeting younger voters, and strong support from those under 30 helped carry Democrat Barack Obama to victory in the Iowa caucuses. In Maryland, the two major parties successfully pushed to allow those who will turn 18 by the November election to participate in the Feb. 12 presidential primary.

But older voters are more likely to register and vote. While 72 percent of registered voters age 55 and over participated in the 2004 presidential election, 47 percent of those ages 18 to 24 cast ballots, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

"I've never missed voting, not even once," said Mary Schwind, 74, a retired physician's assistant from Cockeysville. "I think we were raised to believe that it was something we were supposed to do, something we should be proud to do."

Schwind is like many older Marylanders. According to AARP, 70 percent of the members in Maryland say they vote in every election, come rain or shine. And in the most recent presidential primary, in 2004, nearly half of Maryland's voters were 55 or older, according to state officials.

The reasons that older citizens give are varied: Some say they make voting a priority because they were raised that way. Others do because their parents or grandparents were denied the right. Still others say they make it a point to vote because, as retirees, they have time to research the candidates, read the news and understand the issues.

As next month's primary nears, Schwind says she's as concerned about immigration and border control as she is about gridlock and the negative climate of government.

"I don't hear them talking about our issues," said Schwind, who was participating one morning in a discussion group at the Cockeysville Senior Center. "Mostly, I hear them criticizing the other candidates who are running."

But what really constitutes "senior issues?" Certainly the solvency of federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare affects older Americans more directly. But many experts say it is a misnomer to label seniors a voting bloc.

"Older voters aren't a single bloc. Their opinions and politics are as diverse as other groups," said AARP Maryland State Director Joseph DeMattos Jr.

Many of the dozen or so older Marylanders interviewed at two Baltimore-area senior centers recently say they consider voting a civic duty that they take seriously.

"People fought to get us the vote; some died to get us the vote," said Frances Evans, 78, a retired nurse from Windsor Mill. "So I try to vote every time there's an election."

Jeanne Emig of Cockeysville remembers that, in her day, turning 21 was a momentous occasion, not because she could legally drink, but because she could vote.

"It was such a big deal that my father gave me a wristwatch" marking the passage into adulthood, Emig said.

Recognizing that most older Americans share that sense of responsibility, the presidential candidates' Maryland campaigns say that seniors are vital to their efforts.

"They are extremely loyal, and they do turn out and vote," said Michael Novelli, co-manager of Obama's Maryland campaign. "It would be a grave mistake to overlook them."

Republicans say older people are particularly important to their conservative platform.

"It's normally a good group for us, because people tend to get more realistic about running anything the older they get," said Louis M. Pope, chairman of Republican Mitt Romney's campaign in Maryland.

If seniors are so important, Clare Whitbeck wants to know why, in her opinion, has there not been more discussion among presidential candidates about issues that matter to them.

"They all have their canned stump speeches, which I understand, but there are seniors out here that have serious concerns about senior issues," said Whitbeck, 67, the former legislative chairman for the United Seniors of Maryland, a volunteer advocacy group.

Social Security is a major issue, she said. Long-term care is another. Not to mention transportation for elderly residents to appointments and recreational activities, and increasing staff in nursing homes. She could go on.

"I don't see any of this kind of stuff on anybody's radar," said Whitbeck of Leonardtown.

During this presidential race, age has taken center stage.

The candidates - from 71-year-old Sen. John McCain, to baby boomers Romney and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, to self-proclaimed "gen-Xer" Obama, 46 - have alternately espoused their desires to deliver "for the children," or to attract newer, younger voters, or to wrest control of government from the old-timers with their old ideas and outdated way of doing things.

But Ruth J. Klein, 92, of Randallstown, would like to hear more about what the candidates intend to do to help seniors stay in their homes as they age, as opposed to being sent to nursing homes or assisted living facilities. And she says she could stand more talk about better transportation for older Marylanders who can no longer drive. When will all the talk about "change" and "the young people" turn to that? she asks.

"The senior population is growing; it's really growing fast," said Klein, corresponding secretary of the Baltimore County Association of Senior Citizens. "And more in Maryland than anywhere else. They [politicians] should pay more attention to us, because we'll have more people than the young ones soon enough. And senior issues are so important."

But no true picture of "senior issues" emerged in the informal discussions recently at two local senior centers.

John Vorwerck, 90, a retired chemist, said he has grave concerns about "the Mexican borders, illegal aliens and the Iraq war."

Emig, 85, is concerned about Social Security - not for herself, she says, but for the next generation.

Leslie Wilson, former associate dean at UMBC's Erickson School, which focuses on aging, said: "There is an assumption out there that older people vote differently than young people and that somehow older people only will vote in self-interested ways."

Candidates "go to the senior center and they talk about Social Security and Medicaid, but those older people have children and grandchildren," Wilson said. "They're not only interested in those things; they're interested in the environment and the economy and education, because they really do have a stake in it."

The Liberty Senior Center in Randallstown is as good an example of this as any. While Wermers and Welsh bemoaned the lack of discussion of senior issues in recent presidential debates, down the hall in the fitness room, 74-year-old Roy Compton, wearing slacks and a button-up shirt, walked a steady pace on a treadmill, quietly considering which issues were important to him.

His conclusion: All of them are.

"I'm vitally interested in education, the economy and stopping the war," said Compton, of Pikesville, adding that he cares about Medicare and Social Security as well.

"You can't live in these United States and compartmentalize your thinking. You have to look at all of the issues. They're all important."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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