Silver-haired dedication: Silver Haired Legislature advocates for seniors in Jefferson City
Monday, February 7, 2011
They might not be household names, but these seniors pack a powerful punch among Missouri lawmakers. Serving as a voice for older Missourians, the Silver Haired Legislature has influenced legislation addressing everything from elder abuse to pharmaceuticals to funding for home-delivered meals.
Elected by their peers, the statewide group of 30 senators and 120 representatives volunteer their time without pay. The only requirement: They must be 60 or older. "It's a valuable service, even though we are not that well known," said Loretta Schneider, a 74-year-old Silver Haired senator and chair of the Southeast Missouri district. "I believe the legislators will admit they pay attention to us, because they know we vote. As a voting group, percentage-wise, we're pretty dependable."
At age 90, Lorene Thomason has served as a Silver Haired representative from the Southeast Missouri district since 1985. The Dexter, Mo., woman says she has spent most of her life trying to help others. And, as long as she is able, she plans to continue her tenure with the group. After all, she says, she can still keep up with those 60- and 70-year-olds. "We need to do even more," she said. "You have to take care of everyone as much as you possibly can in whatever you're doing."
Created in 1973, Missouri's Silver Haired Legislature was the first such organization in the United States, according to Ruth Dockins, public information director with the Southeast Missouri Area Agency on Aging and coordinator for the Southeast Missouri Silver Haired legislators. The first session consisted of 10 members. Today, the advocacy group is made up of 10 districts, representing each of the state's area agencies on aging. Each district, including Southeast Missouri's 18-county region, is led by three senators and 12 representatives.
The mock legislative group holds elections in May at area senior centers. Shortly after, the Silver Haired legislators begin meeting to determine the needs of seniors in their districts. Each year in October, the legislators descend on Jefferson City for two days to conduct a model legislative session. Members present, debate and vote on a docket of bills and resolutions that concern legislation, selecting five bills as the group's main focus for the upcoming year. The mock legislature then forward their priorities to the Missouri General Assembly.
Schneider, who also is a Cape Girardeau councilwoman, has served as a Silver Haired legislator for the past dozen years. And every year, she says, continues to be a learning experience. "It's a fringe benefit for us that we get a real education about all of the issues that are so important around the state," she said.