Power of the people

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I have great news: It looks like any potential plans to dissolve the Maryland Department of Aging have been dropped, at least for now.

As many of you know, last month the Beacon helped promote a grassroots campaign to urge Governor Martin O’Malley not to dismantle the Maryland Department of Aging or distribute its programs to other state agencies in an attempt to cut costs.

In particular, we wanted to show the governor how much we value having a secretary of aging on his staff who represents the interests of older Marylanders at the cabinet level.

Rumors had been flying that dissolving the department was being considered by the governor, just as it has become a common theme in recent months elsewhere in Maryland. For example, last fall Baltimore City’s mayor moved its independent Commission on Aging & Retirement Education into the health department, while Cecil County’s Commissioners threatened to do the same with their office on aging.

And just a few weeks ago, Baltimore County’s Executive announced he is considering merging the departments of health, aging and social services into a single agency in the interests of “efficiency.”

We asked that readers let the governor’s office know what they think of any attempt to downplay aging issues and bury programs for the fastest-growing demographic of our state in departments established to pursue other priorities.

You — our readers — responded in a phenomenal manner, cutting out and mailing to the governor the letter we printed for that purpose in our last issue. We know this because more than 300 of you called or e-mailed us to let us know what you had done.

And we also know that far more than 300 letters were ultimately sent, because many of the responders told us they had done one or more of the following: passed copies along to friends, made announcements at their exercise class, distributed copies at meetings (of NARFE chapters, retired union members, religious groups, etc.), encouraged members of their building or community association to write, had signing sessions at their senior center, etc.

In addition to the letter we provided, we know that many chose to write their own personal letter, or called or e-mailed the governor’s office. One told us that when she called, the receptionist appeared so used to getting these calls that she simply asked: “what senior group are you calling from and how many do you represent?”

Some of you called our office and spoke with me at length to be sure you understood the underlying issues and the arguments. In every case, the caller indicated he or she was going to write their own letter.

I also gave speeches to three organizations last month, where I focused on the importance of advocacy (and this campaign in particular), and passed out more than 200 additional copies of the letter to attendees. Many of them indicated they would be mailing it in, intending to make copies first for other friends or groups.

In short, I’m sure our joint efforts were seen as an overwhelming show of support for the Department of Aging and its role in our state.

So I was extremely gratified to see that the rumored merger of the department with another state agency was not proposed as feared in the governor’s budget.

Of course, we can’t know for sure that our campaign is what turned the tide, or even how seriously the governor was considering the step in the first place.

But it’s certainly better to be out in front of an issue and prevent an official announcement of a poor policy than to be playing catch-up once a high-level decision is made and announced.

We also learned that our state’s older adults and their community of friends and family are a formidable force who will act in a political way when the situation calls for it.

As one e-mailer wrote us to say, “I don’t often ‘lobby’ friends, but this [issue] is too important to let it pass quietly!”

I also think that the state’s political powers will remember what we’ve all done the next time they consider taking a step that might adversely affect older Marylanders.

That doesn’t mean we won’t be called on again to flex our political muscles (and possibly quite soon, if the General Assembly jumps on the agency consolidation bandwagon). But now they know we can do it!

Please consider this column my way of expressing thanks to all of you who took an action in support of this campaign. I sincerely address the following statement to each of you:

Thank you for getting involved and speaking your mind. I believe our actions had the intended effect and that we should all feel proud.