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Pressing Issues : Three newly elected representatives say priorities include health care, transit and elder abuse.


At first glance it might not seem that a social worker, a high school history and government teacher, and a retired garment manufacturer have a lot in common. But as Ventura County's newly elected representatives to the California Senior Legislature, Eugenie Wheeler, Joseph Ellenbogen, and Bob Unruhe all intend to be strong advocates for the county's 86,000 seniors age 60 and older.

The three county residents won their seats March 9 in local elections coordinated by the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging. But they will not formally begin their two-year terms until October, when they replace current representatives Joe Gaynes, Maxine Culp and Lee Strohbehn at the CSL's annual five-day session in Sacramento. At that time the 120-member group will draft priority bills that it recommends to the California Legislature on behalf of seniors.

During telephone interviews, all three said the No. 1 priority for seniors is comprehensive national health care reform. Each representative elaborated on individual goals regarding local senior issues.

Joseph Ellenbogen, 75-year-old CSL senator and retired garment manufacturer, has lived in Leisure Village in Camarillo since 1977. For the last eight or nine years he has been a travel consultant for senior groups.

Ellenbogen identified transportation as a problem for county seniors, citing the existence of "seven or eight different transportation companies that provide service in limited ways." He said the matter is being addressed by the Ventura County Commission on Transportation. He also emphasized a need for elder abuse prevention.

"My concerns are for a broader constituency than in my own community or Ventura County," said Ellenbogen. "My personal priority is to increase the public's awareness of the existence of the CSL and its role in addressing senior concerns. CSL has a lot of clout now. And officials in the state of California look to it for guidance. But it has the potential for greater influence for the good if there is more participation by the public."

Since earning her master's degree in social work 50 years ago, CSL Assemblywoman Eugenie Wheeler has practiced social work in various capacities including foster care, mental health, gerontology and problems of the aged. A resident of Ventura for 30 years, she has been in private practice and has taught social work, basic counseling and marriage counseling. Wheeler, 74, is co-author of two books, "Handbook of Marital Therapy" and "Living Creatively with Chronic Illness." Her senior advice column appears on Sundays in the Star-Free Press.

While working with clients, Wheeler said she became enraged at the panic that people 30 and over exhibited at aging. "And I detest euphemisms like, 'I'm not getting older; I'm getting better.' Getting older is a prerequisite for all kinds of growth," she said.

Wheeler also identified elder abuse prevention as a local priority issue. "We had over 3,000 referrals of elder abuse in 1992 to protective services. But we don't have 24-hour emergency response, we don't have respite care, and we don't have a shelter to put abused elders" in, she said.

"We have a good ombudsman program," she added. "But we need more services like Interfaith Caregivers. I have a cluster of legislative proposals for in-home services and transportation that help seniors remain in their own homes. It's not only humane, it's cost effective because premature or inappropriate institutionalization is vastly expensive."

Ojai resident Bob Unruhe, 69, is the county's other CSL assemblyman. Although he retired from the Los Angeles school system, Unruhe still substitutes as a history and government teacher at Buena and Ventura high schools. During the 1950s and '60s he served two terms on the City Council in Culver City.

Unruhe said that seniors' needs vary from one community to the next. "Within the health care issue our audiences were most interested in long-term care and home care. Income protection is also of concern. Many seniors want to be sure that Medicare and Social Security will continue to be funded."

He also emphasized a great need for low-cost housing and affordable transportation. "Transportation within the county is not too good in many places," said Unruhe. "It's probably worse in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks. You can't get from one place to another."


Your California Senior Legislature representatives are available for speaking engagements and can be contacted through the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging, 505 Poli St. in Ventura. For information on any senior issue or to obtain referrals for services, call (805) 652-7560.


CSL representatives receive no compensation other than expenses during the annual session in Sacramento. Funding for the program comes from voluntary contributions noted on the California state income tax form that is filed April 15.


Most cities in the county have a local commission or council on aging that addresses senior needs and issues at the community level. If you are interested in being considered for appointment to the panel as a volunteer member, contact your city hall for details.

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