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Older Women in Rhode Island: A Portrait

January 4, 2013

By Melody Drnach

Providing flexible work time for caregivers.  Ending ageism and discrimination against older women.  Ensuring older women can stay in their homes as long as possible.  Providing affordable, reliable transportation services for the elderly – sounds like a list of New Year’s resolutions for RI NOW activists.  All of these calls to action were sparked by a lively discussion led by Maureen Maigret during RI NOW’s annual meeting on December 10, 2012.

For 44 years, Maureen has been advocating for women and families through her various career roles including 20 years of nursing, serving for a decade as a member of the RI General Assembly, directing policy efforts at the Department of Elderly Affairs and as the executive director of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council.  Retirement has only provided Maureen with more time – time to investigate and report on the status of older women in RI. Recently, Maureen authored a report commissioned by the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island entitled “Older Women in Rhode Island: A Portrait.”  The evening with Maureen was both sobering and motivating as she offered a tremendous amount of data to support the importance of focusing on the community of older women in RI.

According the Women’s Fund report, older Rhode Islanders – persons age 65 and over – comprised an estimated 14.4 percent of the state’s population in 2009. Women accounted for about six out of ten (59 percent) older Rhode Islanders, and among those age 85 and over, slightly more than seven out of ten (73 percent) were women. As the state’s Baby Boomers age, older Rhode Islanders are projected to represent 21.4 percent of the state’s population by 2030.

Consider, with more than 151,000 women aged 65 or older, RI is ranked 9th (in percentage) in the nation and with women aged 85 and older, RI ranks number one in the nation for the highest percentage of older women. Data also indicate that 40% of older households in RI are low income.  For these reasons alone, public policy and how we plan for and care for our elder population should be a topic of statewide discussion.

Maureen also shared many of the stories she heard from women while she was conducting research for the report. Women expressed a concern about feeling safe, wanting to see more women serving in elected office addressing the needs of older women, ensuring women have access to programs at senior centers regardless of ability to pay, and many noted the stress of caring daily for grandchildren.

And while many RI NOW members are familiar with these and other important issues facing older women, applying numbers and percentages helps us develop credible evidence and focused initiatives to begin to address the challenges facing older women in RI.  For example, we thank both Maureen and The Women’s Fund for data illustrating that women provide the bulk of unpaid caregiving and the majority of those receiving care are women. According to the report, nationally, women make up almost 90 percent of the paid caregiving force in our country.  As we develop our RI NOW legislative strategy for the next year, these issues and the associated data will be on our collective minds.

With the implementation of health care policy changes, we have an opportunity to ensure RI is prepared to meet the needs of older women who are more likely to be on Medicaid, more likely to have higher out-of-pocket expenses for both health care and long term care needs, and we must collectively find the will to address the lack of capacity in assisted living communities and nursing homes in our state.  Finally, we must make it a moral obligation to address the fact that women face “pervasive gender inequity across their lifespan,” according to the report, resulting in a lifetime of lower earnings that continues to impact women long after they leave the paid workforce – a fact we at RI NOW know all too well.

Get involved, join RI NOW and help lead the fight to improve the lives of older women and learn more about the Senior Agenda Coalition and Project Grow at http://www.senioragendari.org.

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