At town hall, older Vermonters ask Sen. Bernie Sanders to support aging in place, better nutrition

By Lia Chien; Vermont Public

At a town hall meeting Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders heard from older Vermonters about their urgent needs and priorities, including workforce shortages, universal health care and nutrition programs.

The event, sponsored by Vermont AARP, was held at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center and was livestreamed across the state.

Sanders began the meeting by touching on the importance of including seniors in political conversations that often greatly affect them.

“I think that as a nation, we really do not discuss enough the aging process, what it means to get old, all the options that older people have,” he said.

Sanders took questions from both the in-person and virtual audience throughout the meeting. Adequate and affordable health care came up again and again.

Many attendees stressed the importance of being able to stay in one’s own home as they grow older. Sanders emphasized that the need for home health care is of utmost importance.

“I think you will agree with me that one of the problems we have with home health care is we pay these workers, who do very important work, inadequate wages,” Sanders said. “They’re making $13, $14, $15 bucks an hour.”

Sanders also addressed questions about universal health care and lowering the cost of those services.

“What we’re trying to do is develop and increase legislation that says when you leave the hospital, we will make sure there is somebody taking care of you, making sure you’re taking meds, your home was warm, you’re eating, and you end up saving money by doing that, because people don’t end up back in the hospital,” he said.

A number of attendees at Friday’s meeting also raised nutrition programs as a concern. Older people around Vermont rely on services like congregate meals and Meals on Wheels for food and socialization.

Mary Alice Bisbee attended the meeting in person in Montpelier. She’s concerned about funding and quality of these programs.

“I really like congregate meals, and our congregate meals here at the [Montpelier] Senior Center are being cut way back to only twice a month,” Bisbee said. “I had Meals on Wheels this winter, and they were terrible, because they just are not nearly as good as they used to be a few years ago.”

Meg Burmeister, the executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Council on Aging, was a panelist at Friday’s event. She also emphasized the importance of nutrition services for seniors.

“We have people who are trying to make it on their own and live on a low income and be able to afford food,” she said. “So our networks of food pantries and work with the food bank really becomes critical as our way to help people get their needs met.”

While Friday’s discussion was a wide-ranging one, Sanders continued to return to the overall issue of greed throughout the nation.

He said prior authorization — which is where a health insurance provider must approve a medicine before care is given — is “demoralizing” the health care field.

“They want to treat you, that’s why they went to medical school, that’s what the Hippocratic Oath is about, and then they have to argue with the insurance companies about the kind of treatment they want to provide for you,” Sanders said.

Bisbee echoed the senator’s concerns, saying she’s upset that there aren’t enough doctors and nurses in Vermont.

“They are leaving the positions and taking other jobs, becoming artists or poets or whatever, something that they enjoy, rather than trying to fight with the insurance companies,” she said.

Throughout the entire meeting, Sanders emphasized that the country needs collaboration and change, and he encouraged people to continue coming together and fighting for their needs.

“The worst thing that we could do is to throw up our hands in despair and give up,” he said. “I want everybody to be engaged in the political process, to respect other people’s points of view, to make sure the kids know what democracy is about.”