On the day the U.S Congress was debating a potential plan for inclusion of prescription drugs in the Medicare program, Alexandria's Commission on Aging recognized the ongoing dedication of two citizens and two organizations that have had an immediate and lasting impact on the lives of the elderly.
More than 150 people gathered at the Lee Center last Thursday to participate in the Commission's Excellence in Aging Awards Luncheon and hear U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary, Josephina Carbonell, emphasize, "The only way to empower our older citizens is to listen to them."
In paying tribute to the award-winners, she noted, "There are over two million volunteers throughout the nation that make our programs work." She congratulated Alexandria's commission on their survey "to determine the needs and desires" of the city's older citizens.
This emphasis on volunteerism was echoed by the luncheon's master of ceremonies, Alexandria councilwoman Redella S. Pepper, in presenting the awards. "We couldn't begin to offer the services we do without our volunteers," she said. "We feel that our citizens actually own our city."
Emphasizing that dependence on volunteerism, the Commission gave its highest award, the Annie B. Rose Lifetime Achievement Award, to Dr. George A. Pera, the now retired pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church. During his 12 years at Westminster, he appointed the church's first director of Senior Ministry.
"This indicated the priority he placed on meeting the day-to-day needs of seniors," Pepper said. "After retirement he has shown the same leadership in community concerns as he had for his congregation."
Pera has served on the Senior Services of Alexandria Board for 10 years, the steering committee of the Successful Aging Expo, and presently on the Board of Elder Crafters of Alexandria. Pepper noted that in addition to Pera's efforts on behalf of senior citizens, he has "been exemplary in his advancing of many social issues."
The award is named for one of the founders of the Commission, who "strived throughout her life to get people of all races and backgrounds to work and live together," Pepper pointed out. It is awarded to an Alexandria citizen whose "achievements span a lifetime of public service and who has not less than 10 years of volunteer service enhancing the community, and advancing aging issues."
In accepting the recognition, Pera stressed that throughout his life he has concentrated on the question, What does it mean to be a human being? “The most important mission is to enhance human life," he told the audience.
The Lois Van Valkenburgh Excellence in Aging Award for an Individual went to Grace Sills, who, for the past 15 years, has been the heart and soul of Meals on Wheels in Alexandria. The service delivers daily meals to more than 100 senior citizens who cannot prepare their own meals and are unable to leave their homes.
PREVIOUSLY DESIGNATED the Excellence in Aging Award, it was renamed this year to honor the memory of Van Valkenburgh, who worked to improve the lives of seniors until her death in December 2002. The award honors an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to elevating the quality of life for older Alexandrians within one year prior to nomination.
Pepper stated, "Grace coordinates the efforts of volunteers from 30 churches who prepare the meals at Alexandria hospital, and who deliver these meals door-to-door to some of the city's frailest citizens. She has committed herself to making our community a better place to live."
Sills admitted that she was both shocked and overwhelmed with joy in being nominated for the award. "I couldn't do what we do without the help we receive from all the volunteers," she said.
This year the Commission named two organizations as recipients of their Excellence in Aging Award for an Organization. They were Westminster Presbyterian Church and St. Martin de Porres Senior Center. This award follows the same guide lines as that for the individual but is designed to recognize the combined efforts of an organization.
Westminster Presbyterian Church was honored for its programs of Senior Ministries, Congregational Care Plan, and local mission outreach that "has made outstanding contributions ... to the quality of life for older Alexandrians in 2002-03."
The church's broad range of services is directed by two staff positions. That staff also participates on Senior Services Board, Guardianship Advisory Board, Alexandria Successful Aging Expo, and Pro-Aging Networking Services. Accepting the award was Dr. Roger Shoup, interim minister at the church.
Carol Augustine, director, St. Martin de Porres Senior Center, in accepting that organization's honor, explained that the center served 2,300 seniors last year with a wide array of programs ranging from meals to health and wellness to bilingual support groups. "St. Martin's serves a very diverse group," she emphasized.
Attesting to that fact, its monthly program calendar is published in English, Spanish, Farsi and Korean. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington has operated St. Martin's, located in the West end of Alexandria, for the past 26 years.
JOINING CARBONELL as a featured speaker at the event was Barbara B. Kennelly, former U.S. representative from Connecticut, who served eight terms in the House and is now the president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
"Half of our population would live in poverty if it were not for Social Security," Kennelly insisted. "But we have a real problem at this time."
She explained, "In good times everybody just takes the program for granted. But in deficit times, the social programs, and particularly Social Security, are subject to the theory of privatization."
As for the inclusion of prescription drugs in the program being debated in the U.S. Senate as she spoke, Kennelly described it as a case of "good news/bad news." She said, "The good news is that there is going to be a bill. The bad news is that it's not quite adequate. Seniors need a Medicare prescription drug benefit that is affordable, reliable and comprehensive."
She cited a gap in coverage, fluctuation of benefits and premiums, luring seniors out of fee-for-service, and means-testing as "some of the issues we try to analyze" when assessing what is being suggested in any pending legislation. But she warned the greatest threat to Medicare was the potential introduction of a "means-testing" concept.
This breaks a long-standing precedent not to have Social Security subject to a "means test," according to Kennelly. In her view, "The strength of Social Security and Medicare is that there has not been a means test. They have been open to everyone. You pay your dues, and you get the benefits."
Kennelly punctuated her remarks with, "The House bill imposes a means test. And, once it becomes means-tested, it becomes like Medicaid. One need only look at the attack Medicaid is under now to understand why Medicare must remain a universal program."
Carbonell said, "We must build a system that is based on the community. We need to give more services to our caregivers."
She noted there is one constant message from older Americans. "It is we want to live independently in our own homes," she said.