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An active retirement

Older Americans make a formidable voting bloc, and as healthcare issues and the war make headlines, more are politicized, some say.

August 11, 2004|Michael Ordona | Times Staff Writer

They're older, they're wiser, they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore.

"Look at the drug ads targeting seniors; they're trying to keep them afraid," says Natalie Ambrose, 74, a retired schoolteacher and current member of the Los Angeles County Area Agency on Aging Advisory Council, a nonpartisan activist organization. "They're really aimed at the children of seniors; they're selling to the caregivers. It's another way of taking away our independence."

About a dozen of Ambrose's colleagues will be in a select contingent to hit the rails later this month to protest the Bush administration's prescription drug law in one of many examples of senior citizens' activism.

The "Canadian Rx Express" is a train ride to Vancouver to pick up three-month supplies of prescription drugs to dramatize the irony of having to go to Canada to buy U.S.-made drugs at discount prices. The new law prohibits Medicare from negotiating bulk rates, so acquiring American drugs from Canada is significantly cheaper than buying them in America.

"We're not worried about getting arrested," says a laughing Doreen Moore, 76, former president of the advisory council. "We can scandalize our families; we don't care."

It's unlikely that anyone will be going to jail for this ride, as its sponsor, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is keeping the purchases within the law. But the message is clear: These seniors think the law is absurd, and they're not going to take it sitting down.

And when seniors get riled, things are likely to change. Approximately 72% of eligible voters ages 65 to 74 cast ballots in 2000 -- the largest number for any age group, according to the Census Bureau.

The foremost lobbying organization of senior citizens, AARP, has 35 million members, with 3 million in California alone (AARP's membership includes people 50 and older).

Local leaders of senior political activism are more likely to rock the vote than a chair.

"I think there's been an increase in senior activism," says Marvin Schachter, 80, a member of the California Commission on Aging. "Seniors realize they have to make their voice heard if they're going to protect gains already won -- and also to overcome inflationary increases in medical costs and the explosion in housing costs."

Schachter cites Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's first budget proposals as a good example of the need for seniors to stay politically active -- and of their clout. The governor had proposed cutting some in-home healthcare programs for seniors, which would have forced about 75,000 people into hospital stays, according to Schachter. After the Commission on Aging and its allies put pressure on state politicians, the governor "capitulated quickly because he realized it would mean severe cost increases," Schachter says. "He instead requested a Medicare waiver.

"Residential care workers in L.A. were making minimum wage. These are people who did the most onerous work and they were paid only for their hours, without healthcare or anything. The Aging With Dignity initiative that we helped pass got them raises to $7.90 with some healthcare -- but the governor wanted to cut it all out."

John Glass, 68, a longtime local activist with his wife, Judy, 67, says that while they marched in Vietnam War protests in the '60s, political mobilization "has been a full-time activity for us since we retired." The Glasses have taken part in vigils against the war in Iraq, worked for healthcare reform and opposed San Fernando Valley secession.

"We were young adults during the McCarthy era," John Glass says, "and that really set the tone for a need to be vigilant about what the government is doing."

Older Americans are loudly speaking out on the issues, including those that don't just concern seniors. Hank Lacayo, 73, state president of the Congress of California Seniors and a lifelong activist, says, "We were and are skeptical about the president's tax cuts because they benefit such a narrow group. We worry about the deficits and how they will affect funding for Social Security and Medicare. Most seniors I know are harsh in their criticism of what has happened in Iraq."

Judy Glass says, "We're not single-issue voters at all. For instance, I think what's happening to the economy and the social structure of the United States is an enormously important issue, but nobody's talking about it."

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Long memories

Several of the seniors interviewed cited going through the Great Depression and major conflicts like World War II as reasons they have no stomach for war, particularly the one in Iraq.

"It's the most important thing in my vote," Moore says. "I'm just sick of the bloodletting. Generations getting killed and for what?"

Lacayo is a combat veteran who believes that the majority of people over 65 do not support the war. "I think many seniors are angry at the blind determination of our leaders to act in our names without telling us the truth."

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