Senior citizens want safeguards against abuse, Alzheimer's

By Walter C. Jones 
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – When 300 retirees from across the state made the early morning bus rides to the Capitol to talk to legislators last week, Bruce Fletcher was among the 35 coming from Augusta.
As a member of the local Alzheimer's Association board, he wanted to hallway fight the crowds to meet face to face with local lawmakers like Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, to ask for their support of senior-citizens' issues this legislative session. They were recognizable by their purple T-shirts and stickers saying "4 Seniors."
"We think it's important to be here and let them see us," Fletcher said.
From all observers, the reception at the Capitol is warm now compared to the recent past, partly due to the graying of the Baby Boom, improved longevity and the rise of women in leadership.
"When I was first in the House years ago, laws were more strict for animal abuse than for elder abuse," said Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford. "I used to say 'In Georgia it's okay to kick you granny but not your dog.'" But the state has since enacted elder-abuse laws, and now Unterman is the Senate sponsor of House Bill 78 to expand the list of crimes for physical, mental and financial abuse and to make some of them felonies. It also adds to the list of professionals required to report symptoms of abuse.
An added feature, unique to seniors, is the bill's provision for victims to testify by video to preserve their accounts and to prevent defendants from delaying trials until after the victims have died.
The measure, by Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, has been approved by the House Judiciary Committee he chairs and is awaiting a vote by the whole House Tuesday or Thursday.
It's indicative of the new heft older people have in the legislature.
"This is a good year for the elderly," said Unterman, chairwoman of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee. "When I got here, nobody wanted to carry their bills. They don't give any money, and they can be challenging to work with."
Heading into Thursday's Crossover Day deadline when bills must be passed by the House or Senate to remain viable for this year, the retirees have enjoyed mixed results.
Senate Bill 14 already passed the Senate unanimously to create a state plan for coping with the burgeoning Alzheimer population.
"It's working in conjunction with the national plan," Fletcher said.
It would prepare state and local government for circumstances like a hurricane evacuation, and more broadly to investigate which services the state needs to add or expand. The task force it would create would collect data and report back to the legislature, according to Kathy Floyd, lobbyist for AARP, which has nearly 1 million members over age 50 in Georgia.
"It's a process," she said. "It can provide a framework."
A second priority for the seniors is legislation to recognize guardianships for the elderly granted in neighboring states, such as an adult child living in Alabama over a parent in Georgia. Surrounding states have already enacted such a law, but so far, Fletcher said no one has volunteered to sponsor the bill here.
In between the extremes of one bill that's passed and one that hasn't been introduced are two bills that are awaiting action ahead of the Crossover deadline. One, the seniors advocates like, HB 78, and one they don't.
They're opposed to Senate Bill 202 which sets procedures for arbitration to settle nursing-home-patient disputes rather than court battles. It's sponsored by Unterman, a fact that puzzles most advocates who have long considered her an ally.
The senator presided over a hearing on the bill Wednesday in which a parade of seniors' advocates spoke against it and business lobbyists spoke for it.
Another legislative ally who sits on Unterman's committee, Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, expressed her bewilderment.
"I don't understand why we would want to limit their day in court," Orrock said.
Unterman heard the objections and kept the committee from voting until Monday when she will have had the chance to make changes they suggested. She sees the bill as a way to get compensation for elderly victims who can't interest trial attorneys to represent them because the potential jury awards are so much smaller than those for young victims robbed of potential career earnings.
"If there was one instance where I thought I was harming them, there is no way I would do this legislation," she said.

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