Mullen | Wheels Flying Off: Senior Americans are invisible. 

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Marian Robinson moves into the White House next week, along with her son-in-law Barack Obama, daughter Michelle and granddaughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. In its Jan. 12 edition, the president-elect’s hometown Chicago Tribune called 71-year-old Robinson “head of the grandkids’ transition team.” She’s also been called “grandma-in-chief,” and “first granny.” n

Sweet.

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The real message of having a White House grandma, who by all accounts is physically and mentally strong and fiercely independent, cuts deeper than a few happy lines in various newspaper “Living” sections.

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See, like millions her age, she’s still got mileage on her. She’s lovely and loved. She’s useful and willing to help where needed—just like 3.6 million other parents nationwide who lived with their children in 2007, according to the U.S. census. That number increased 67 percent from 2000.

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According to AARP, 24 percent of Baby Boomers expect a parent or in-law to move in with them eventually. The X and Y and Z and every other cutely named generation can expect the same—with growing pressures around the subject of grandma’s living arrangements.

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We have no real tradition in the contemporary United States of the true extended family. That’s unlike most Asian countries—China, where I traveled in 2000, visiting rural villages and teeming cities alike—comes to mind. During the day when parents were at work, I seldom saw a small child on the street without a grandma or grandpa nearby. For all we’ve heard in the West of China’s massive and cold government childcare programs, I witnessed plenty of elderly caregivers to go around, with wisdom no doubt, to impart to the little ones.

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In the United States, we’re all about protecting the unborn and the little ones. Not so once we reach “a certain age.” You can see it in public policy, and it’s coming home to roost right here in our back yard. A couple of days after the national media reported Marian Robinson’s plan to move into the White House, our own Utah Legislature is already considering hacking away 15 percent across the board from the state budget for the Department of Human Services (DHS), which includes numerous time-tested programs that make life a wee bit nicer for older Utahns.

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DHS has already combed through its spreadsheets and cut 7 percent from program budgets, as requested by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Last week, legislators came back with a call for an additional 8 percent cut. “The governor’s office and the Legislature are seeing the issue [of budget cuts] in different ways,” Nels Holmgren, director of Aging and Adult Services for the state, tells me. “But no question, there’s a radical difference in the two numbers.”

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Sitting at the front of the projected chopping block is Meals on Wheels—one of the most successful human-services programs in the last 40-odd years. The program depends on a mix of federal, state, county and volunteer funding for survival. At this point, legislators have raised the prospect of entirely killing state funding to the one-hot-meal-a-day delivery program.

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Here is why Meals on Wheels works: Beyond the fact that it often provided the only hot meal 12,871 homebound elderly Utahns received last year, the program has a bonus effect of identifying other problems among the senior population. Often, DHS spokeswoman Liz Solis explains, a Meals on Wheels volunteer can spot serious health concerns among those people they visit, or problems of elder abuse in the home. Solis knows a bit about this. She has driven a Meals on Wheels truck and one day walked into a Capitol Hill-area home where the 90-something man had tried to help his wife into her wheelchair. He had dropped her. Both were hurt; neither could reach a phone. “He knew if he waited long enough, Meals on Wheels would be there. So he waited. And waited. And we came, thankfully,” Solis says.

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Here’s another reason the seriously jeopardized program works: It’s not just some big-government giveaway. Holmgren tells me Meals on Wheels in Utah gets roughly $1.4 million from the feds; $2.5 million from the state; about 3 million from local governments; and $2.7 million from its own recipients and their families. That’s right. People living on seriously fixed incomes are helping to pay for their own government program. Holmgren says the Older Americans Act of 1965 doesn’t allow government officials to pressure Meals on Wheels recipients or people who eat at senior centers to donate, but they do anyway. They send checks, their families offer contributions, they find a way to do their share.

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Still, they are mostly invisible. The 2007 Legislature seems intent on keeping it that way. Lawmakers have no inclination to raise taxes or to dip too deeply into the state’s $400-million-plus rainy day fund—even if it means adding small comfort to the lives of 12,000 old people.

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The people who know what senior Americans have to offer—Marian Robinson is just one of them—understand the program works. They wait and hope.

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“I really don’t know,” Holmgren says, “if we’ll get many rainier days than this one.”

nn n n n n n n
(Not) According to Jim:
n It’s been 175 weeks since Rep. Jim Matheson
n spoke to
City Weekly.

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