ATLANTA — Around Robin Souers’ neck was colorful yarn from which two photos of her husband hung, one of him when they were married and another shortly before he died at 58 of Alzheimer’s disease.
The Harlem widow proudly leaned over to show her representative, Rep. Barry Fleming, both pictures, and then, as she explained the trials of caring for a man whose illness destroyed his mind in the prime of life, she lovingly turned the “before” photo to the front and gingerly arranged a ribbon tied in a bow that framed it. As frustrating and trying as the ordeal was on her while raising teen boys, it’s evident she never lost her affection for her husband.
“It was not nice and easy. He was young and strong,” she said.
Souers was one of about 100 Alzheimer’s advocates at the Capitol on Thursday in town to tell legislators their stories and to advocate for additional resources.
“It’s hard to even know what to ask for because the needs are so global,” she said. “Many people are dealing with this, but so many more people are going to. … If you don’t know someone who’s got it, you will.”
The rise in incidences of Alzheimer’s is just one facet of the aging of the baby boom generation in which 10,000 of them turn 65 every day across the country. Policymakers call it the silver tsunami because its impact on government will be profound.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who at age 71 is part of that demographic tidal wave, added money to various senior-citizens’ programs in his spending recommendations for the next fiscal year. He requested $693,000 in additional funds for adult protective services, workers who investigate cases of elder abuse, and $227,000 for emergency placement for older patients who suddenly need a place to stay.
Advocates have convinced the House of Representatives to add $321,000 to hire inspectors to oversee the state’s adult day care centers and to begin licensing and inspecting them.
The licensing authority was enacted into law in 2003, but money has never been appropriated for actually issuing the licenses and inspecting the centers, according to Kathy Floyd, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging.
The House also added $750,000 for the Meals on Wheels program.
Those budget increases total $2 million, a fraction of the $10 million advocates say is needed.
One measure the advocates are pushing that won’t cost anything is to separate the Division of Aging Services from the Department of Human Services which is primarily focused on children.
“With the aging tsunami we know is coming, this will focus the solutions that the state will look at,” Floyd said.
Underman said Georgia is unprepared for the rapid increase in older citizens and their needs.
“How can you be an upper-tier state – we’re in the top 10 states by population – and we don’t have a plan,” she said. “The fiscal impact is just tremendous.”
Part of the reason the state is unprepared is because as medicine extends life spans, people are not amassing adequate enough savings to care for themselves. Less than one in four workers with an annual household income below $35,000 say they save anything for retirement, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2013 report.
It’s a big reason the state’s Medicaid budget is soaring, by another $506 million just next year. The funds go to pay the medical expenses of patients who have depleted their own bank accounts.
For many legislators, the demands of the aging population are unfamiliar. One who acknowledges it is Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who retired from teaching 10 years ago. Now he leads the House Committee on Human Relations and Aging and is serving on the state’s newly created Alzheimer’s advisory council.
“It was such a learning experience for me,” he told the Alzheimer’s activists. “I came out of those meetings, I think, a better person.”
Barry Fleming, the Harlem Republican who represents the district Robin Souers hails from, gained some perspective when his mother was diagnosed with the disease.
“It’s made me much more aware,” he told her. “You learn so much.”
But, of course, senior-citizens’ advocates aren’t wishing a horrible disease on the families of lawmakers just so they’ll be more sympathetic.
That’s why people like Robin Souers are willing to don a purple T-shirt and green scarf and walk the halls of the Capitol recounting their personal sorrows to strangers.
“Nothing really prepares you for this unless you’ve seen it, and seen it all the way to the end,” said Souers who had moved to become a professional social worker at Fort Gordon two years before her husband’s diagnosis, meaning she had no family and few friends to support her locally.
“This is an illness where you lose your mind,” she said.