For most of his 30-plus years in the South Carolina legislature, whenever Glenn McConnell spoke, people listened.
The longtime Senate president pro tempore now uses that voice to advocate for the elderly.
And people need to listen.
McConnell became lieutenant governor in March after Ken Ard resigned and pleaded guilty to campaign fraud. McConnell now has only a ceremonial role in the Senate. But his new position comes with one important function: leadership of the state's Office on Aging. To his credit, rather than bide time in a job he took not by choice but by constitutional mandate, McConnell is becoming a champion of the elderly.
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He sees a train wreck coming if the state doesn't do more to prepare for a booming elderly population.
He has launched what he calls the Face of Aging Tour, holding forums throughout the state to hear about problems and drum up support for an office he once knew only as one line in a 900-page state budget.
In an appearance this week at the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Beaufort, McConnell said, "The face of aging is a reality and a coming calamity if we don't do something now."
The number of South Carolinians age 60 and older is expected to double in the next 20 years -- from 912,000 to 1.8 million.
Both the legislature and communities will have to do more to enable the elderly to stay in their homes as long as possible, avoiding the Medicaid nursing home care that costs taxpayers $52,000 per year, per patient.
The legislature needs to allocate $5 million more to the Office on Aging's home- and community-based services program, McConnell said. That would eliminate a waiting list of more than 8,000 home-bound seniors who need someone to deliver meals, take them to doctor visits, help with home repairs or install wheelchair ramps.
This is not only the humane thing to do, it is fiscally sound. Yet, the state budget for aging services has been cut by 48 percent in the past three years.
"We've got to articulate the message, bring energy to the message, make the message attractive to the different political philosophies out there in a way that says 'look, we're talking about a social policy, we're talking about good economic policy and we're talking about good budgetary policy,' " McConnell told the AARP Bulletin at the outset of his statewide tour.
It's not a very sexy message. The local meeting attracted only about 30 people. Of 10 local legislators invited to attend, only state Rep. Shannon Erickson of Beaufort showed up.
Yes, the elderly need stronger voices and more champions.
But the problem touches more than the elderly. It touches their adult children as well. McConnell knows this personally because his late mother had Alzheimer's disease.
State and county governments cannot cover the demand today, or the coming avalanche. In Beaufort County, for example, seniors already account for almost a third of the population.
That's why McConnell said his tour is to energize communities, churches and nonprofit organizations to help the elderly stay out of institutional care. The private sector does a lot in Beaufort County, but it will have to do more.