POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 3, 2011
Barbara Kim Stanton is still younger than most of the "retired persons" that AARP represents: She's 61. But in 2003, only a few years into the organization's 50-plus membership age range, she got a preview of what frail elders endure.
Long months of traction and rehabilitation after a crash with an SUV left her helpless, barely able to pull open a refrigerator or hobble up the slightest incline with her walker.
She still goes to rehab for residual weakness, but on the positive side it infused Stanton with passion for her work as AARP executive director.
AARP most recently has advocated that the city adopt the national "Complete Streets" policy enhancing roadways for pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers.
Earlier this year, the group battled Gov. Neil Abercrombie over a proposed pension tax. The bill failed, and Abercrombie called AARP "essentially a front for insurance companies."
That soured a promising relationship: Previously, the governor had promptly released long-delayed funds for the senior support program Kupuna Care.
Stanton, a former deputy director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, now preaches a sermon of preparing for old age. The ones she wants most to hear it are her two kids and their contemporaries.
"What AARP wants is for people to live their best lives," she said. "The years go by faster than they know. You can tell a 20-year-old, you say, ‘Plan for retirement,' and they look at you and they can't believe you're talking to them about this."
QUESTION: What’s AARP’s core focus in a budget-cutting era?
ANSWER: I think that we look at the most vulnerable — and this would not be just the seniors. This would be the disabled, the lower income. … What we look out for is that they not be targeted unduly.
When you’re a senior, you’re at the last phase of your life, and you have to make sure that you have enough finances to last all the way to the end. So our concern always has been that seniors have dignity, they have choice and they have independence in the second 50 years. And you can’t do that unless you have a health care system that works, that’s affordable, accessible, that has quality, and you can’t do that unless you have secure finances. Because without secure finances, you’re not in control of the direction of your life and having choices.
Q: Why is the campaign for “Complete Streets” such a central issue for you?
A: Not only is it because Hawaii had the highest percentage of pedestrians over the age of 65 who died trying to cross the street. … If you don’t have the infrastructure in which you can have a healthy, safe life, then your world shrinks. To just go home and stay in your home because it’s not safe around you is not acceptable.
Q: You’ve said that engineering changes are needed. Can you give some examples?
A: In some places, especially where you have five lanes going across, mid-block crosswalks are really one of the more dangerous areas. In certain areas, some communities have been able to do “bulb-outs.” It’s still part of the sidewalk, but the sidewalk extends into the first lane, so people can see the pedestrians earlier on. It ends that lane, or else you have a bulb-out at a corner. The other thing I was so impressed with, I call it the “island” … the medial strip where, if the person can only make it halfway across, there’s a place to stop. These are more expensive types of things, but they also have things that are inexpensive, like the pedestrian signage they have by Starbucks in Manoa. … There are solutions, but what we’re looking for is a commitment.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: If the goal is that they’re going to be making the roads a place for shared use — not just pedestrians but bicycles and drivers, Segways and wheelchairs, any kind of transit — that they plan for mixed use, for shared use, and that they plan in a way that it would not be an afterthought, but … incorporated in the design.
Q: Why do you think Oahu has roadways that seemingly were built with only drivers in mind?
A: I think it comes down to people not being heard. The drivers are clearly the dominant travelers. They’re the majority of road users that you’re trying to satisfy. I think people in Hawaii, they just have not spoken up in that way, and so there hasn’t been that commitment to getting it done. … I totally understand the problems of budget. I do. But at the same time, to have the kind of fatalities and injuries that we have is just unacceptable. … It’s just getting people in the mode that it can happen, if the community wants it.
Q: What are some other key issues for AARP?
A: Financial security is one of them, if only because Hawaii regularly ends up at the top or near the top of the list for high cost of living. And people, by and large, if they’re committed to Hawaii, they do it at great financial sacrifice. The cost of paradise, and we know that. And that’s why in Hawaii we’re always looking at: What does it take to be financially secure in Hawaii? And what does it take to have a secure retirement in Hawaii, because of the high cost?
Q: On that general issue, have you kissed and made up with Gov. Abercrombie over the clash on the pension bill?
A: Well, you know, it was a tough session, and I think that what you heard was the depths of his frustration, because of how much he wanted to do. So we understood that. We understand that when you’re governor, you’re very broad and you have to look at broad issues. People focus on the pension issue, but that’s only a single issue. AARP is more than a single-issue organization.
Q: Wasn’t the bill going to affect only a small minority of seniors, those with private pensions above a certain income threshold?
A: Right, but you’re talking about the final version. … We’re open to most reasonable concepts, but the devil is in the details. And when we looked at the bill itself, the bill was so problematic on many fronts.
Q: What were some of the problems?
A: For example, it was retroactive to Jan. 1. Another thing that concerned us is the way it was structured. They were using the federal AGI (adjusted gross income), which includes using your Social Security, all income. And it’s not a graduated tax increase. … So if a person was one penny over the threshold, one was under, the person who’s a penny over had all of his pension taxed, and the person one penny under had none of it. …
This is a completely new tax, that taxes pensions for the first time. And so it is a major change in public policy. So for something like that, we were wondering, “Where’s the community dialogue, to see how the community felt about it?” Because when it came up, it came up fairly late. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar prior to the governor’s State of the State. … So the question we heard was, “Why is it that the pensions are being looked at to balance the budget? Have we looked at other things?” That question resonated.
Q: What other issues concerned you at the Legislature?
A: Our two top issues are long-term care and home- and community-based services. … If there's a perfect storm coming, we're already going into the eye of the storm with the boomers entering their senior years. … We are the least prepared in terms of having coordinated long-term care health delivery systems. … Home- and community-based services, or Kupuna Care, costs about a third of the price of a nursing home. So not just financially, but this is the desire of the senior who is aging. They want to be at home. They want to be in their community.