West Virginia Elders Make a Difference

Magazine cover with three photos of elderly people

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 2/3, "Older Wiser Stronger: Southern Elders." Find more from that issue here.

Pearl Kyre thinks it's "tragic when older people who can still get around sit back in their rocking chairs and feel sorry for themselves." Certainly, no one could accuse Kyre of "sitting back." For about eight years she has been a leader of the group of elder self-advocates in Marion County, West Virginia. Kyre says that she is much busier today than during the years she worked as a school teacher in Marion County. Her concerns now extend beyond family and school to include issues such as world hunger and health care cost containment. A decade ago, Kyre's main involvement in social issues was through her work in the United Methodist church. Now the short, slight woman in her late 70s does not hesitate to confront political giants such as Jay Rockefeller, governor of West Virginia from 1976 to 1984 and now a U.S. senator. 

Throughout Marion County other elders who have never been "involved with politics" now find themselves approaching elected officials on street comers and under capital domes, speaking out on issues of concern, participating in government decisionmaking, and having a great time in the process. 

West Virginia elders have been involved in self-advocacy for many years now, on both local and statewide levels. A third of the state's registered voters are elders; obviously the concerns of older people must be taken seriously by any official facing reelection. Thus it is not surprising that elders, working with other citizens' groups, have acquired an impressive track record with the West Virginia legislature. While this advocacy network has lost many legislative battles over the years, it has also achieved important victories in such diverse areas as the funding of transportation services, utilities reform, pharmaceutical policies, and protection from elder abuse. 

The strength of the "senior power" movement in West Virginia comes from its grassroots character. Senior citizens in many communities throughout the state are organized into legislative committees that establish priorities about which legislative battles need to be fought each year in order to address the needs of the state's elders. Currently, for example, the legislative committees are emphasizing health-care legislation and better funding of supportive health services, such as homemaker services, that help elders to continue living independently. 

This grassroots advocacy network parallels the government's formal aging services network. Programs funded by the federal Older Americans Act of 1965, such as senior centers and nutrition sites, are operating in every West Virginia county. The state's Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs), which coordinate much of the funding to these local programs, are organized into 11 multi-county regions. Because they hold the purse strings, the attitudes of the people running these area agencies, as well as the attitude of the director of the state Commission on Aging, strongly influence whether or how local programs work to promote activism among the older citizens of a given community. In contrast to the situation in many parts of the nation, the formal aging services network in West Virginia has been tolerant and at times actively supportive of activism by elders. 

Marion County, where Pearl Kyre lives, is part of the six-county area served by the Region VI Area Agency on Aging. Through a combination of personalities, events, and efforts, Region VI has been among the most heavily involved areas in the state in terms of elder activism. Each of the counties in this region, for example, has a legislative committee. Region VI seniors also make up over a third of the 1,825 members of the statewide Council of Senior West Virginians, and busloads of older men and women attend the annual Region VI Senior Citizens' Day at the state legislature. 

Much of this activity can be credited to the encouragement over the years by the Region VI AAA directors. Beginning in the mid-1970s, then-director Don Spencer began implementing the mandate of the Older Americans Act that the aging network serve as an advocate for the elderly. Spencer, now director of a rural health-education agency in Maryland, explains, "Because the service-delivery aspect of our agency was so limited, we felt there were larger issues that needed to be addressed through legislative action. We did support the seniors in their advocacy efforts as strongly as we could, especially in helping them conduct need surveys and opinion polls, and then helping them with issue refinement and choosing three or four issues to concentrate on each year — the ones which seemed to have the best chance of getting legislative action or which the seniors themselves felt were most urgent.'' 

This supportive attitude has been carried on by Spencer's successor, Jon Hunter. Some AAA directors seem to be obsessed with the need to protect their own turf and feel threatened by any move to empower senior citizens to act on their own behalf. Hunter, on the other hand, encourages his staff, as well as staff members in the local programs, to provide elders with the training and support they need to become effective self-advocates. 


Region VI is located in the north central part of West Virginia. The terrain of the region's 2,253 square miles ranges from hilly to mountainous. Three of its six counties are essentially rural, while three contain cities with populations of between 20 and 30 thousand. The demography of the region is typical of the state as a whole: 18 percent of the total population is age 60 and over; 24 percent of the elderly have incomes below the official poverty level. 

Marion County is located in the center of Region VI. Most of its 60,000 citizens live in rural areas and small communities outside of Fairmont, the county seat. The economy, which centers on coal-mining and heavy industry, has been severely depressed in recent years. The unemployment rate is around 12 percent, and the percentage of the population living below the poverty level is 15 percent. The county's elderly have not escaped these hard times; 22 percent of the approximately 13,000 older people live below the poverty level. While the largest group of elders is composed of widowed women living alone, many elders have informal support networks in their communities and churches that help them to function independently as they age. Indeed, 28 percent of the elderly residents of Marion County are over 75, yet only 3 percent of senior citizens live in institutions. Several thousand elders participate regularly in the programs and services provided through (or in conjunction with) Marion County Senior Citizens, Inc. (MCSC). 

When I became director of MCSC in 1976, the agency was well-established as a senior activities center. I was delighted that the board of directors wanted to reshape its program in order to have a greater impact on the day-to-day lives of the older people of Marion County. The MCSC board is made up primarily of senior citizens, many of whom represent the various outlying small communities; and the MCSC board has traditionally stressed the importance of involving the elderly at the community level in setting priorities and determining policies. Community leaders who aren't seniors also serve on the board, often supplying the clout or contacts necessary to accomplish its goals. 

Grassroots organizing usually starts with one or two people making a personal commitment to work for change. At Marion County Senior Citizens, several members of the board of directors were willing to make that commitment. The first among those board members was Pearl Kyre. During my first few months at MCSC, I noticed that she possessed many of the traits necessary to grassroots advocacy — she cared a lot, she wasn't afraid to speak out, and, most important, she was a hard worker. So one day I asked her out to lunch. She still refers to that as the day I "conned her into all of this." Kyre's experience in social ministry in a local Methodist church had convinced her that more needed to be done. In spite of her busy schedule, she was willing to commit the necessary time and energy to form an activist senior citizens' group in Marion County. 

During this period it became clear that the program at MCSC had outgrown its cramped facilities. During 1977, seniors from all over the county worked together to obtain funds from local governments for a new senior citizens center. MCSC approached the Fairmont City Council and the Marion County Commission because the funds from the state and federal governments were extremely limited and came with all sorts of bureaucratic strings attached. 

Senior citizens attending meetings of the city council or the county commission had a special way of communicating with the elected officials. After all, the elders had known most of these officials since they were children. Pearl Kyre had actually taught one or two of these officials during her years as a school teacher. When the elders could spend a few minutes before the meeting discussing old times with the elected officials, it made the meeting go easier. I quickly learned one of the most valuable lessons for staff people working with grassroots groups — stay in the background. My role was primarily to develop cost figures for the new facility and to prepare the elders to speak out. The city council and county commission agreed to contribute up to $150,000 each toward the new center, after receiving a promise from MCSC that we would demonstrate our commitment by raising matching funds. 

The experience of advocating on the local level gave elders in the community a manageable first step into the world of lobbying and public speaking, and several new leaders emerged during this period. One was Alta Knight, an 84-year-old widow who approached me one day asking to address the senior center's luncheon group about the dangers of nuclear power. Pearl Kyre knew of other elders interested in specific policy issues such as health care or social services. 

In late 1977, Kyre and I asked several of these identified leaders to meet with us informally to discuss how Marion County's elders could be organized into an effective advocacy group. We also started gathering information from state groups advocating for the elderly and attempted to educate ourselves about the major concerns of those groups. We attended gatherings of senior citizens throughout the county and concluded that many older people were urgently concerned about the inadequacies of the social services provided in the county. 

Our group of leaders decided in late 1977 to hold a public meeting to see if other elders in Marion County were interested in the issue of social services (and related issues such as transportation, health care, and utilities). MCSC's satellite clubs, which meet monthly in almost every community in the county, helped spread the word about the meeting. As usual in a basically rural area, the media was more than willing to publicize this senior citizens' event. The newspaper ran press releases and local radio and television stations announced the meeting date and time. 

The senior center's van was made available and volunteer drivers were located in the outlying communities to bring people to the meeting. In order to make the meeting more fun, we held it in conjunction with a covered-dish dinner. 

Well over 50 people from throughout the county came to this meeting. Representatives from the statewide senior citizens advocacy organization also attended and explained the issues they were working on at the time. Administrators from the city and county governments and a staff person from the AAA encouraged elders to continue to speak out. 

Many elders present voiced a special interest in working to increase the availability of transportation services in the county. On this and other issues, it quickly became clear that we should begin working with other groups on a statewide level. 


During the early 1970s the Council of Senior West Virginians, Inc. (CSWV) was organized by several prominent elder advocates to study the needs of the elderly of the state, educate the public, and speak out on issues of concern to senior citizens. The West Virginia Commission on Aging granted money to CSWV to conduct surveys and determine what public policy issues elders across the state were most concerned about. These surveys were conducted in 1974 and 1976 with the assistance of several Area Agencies on Aging and many local senior citizens' programs. The priorities identified included utility reform, maintaining transportation services, and making health care more available and affordable. 

In their efforts to educate and speak out, CSWV members began monitoring the state legislature and publicizing the actions taken there. They soon began to voice their feeling that senior citizens' needs were not being adequately addressed by the elected officials in Charleston, the state capitol. Legislators did not take kindly to this criticism and pressured the director of the state Commission on Aging into withdrawing grant funds from CSWV. This financial pressure combined with the legal restrictions on tax-exempt nonprofit corporations to minimize the direct lobbying that CSWV could do on legislative issues. 

As a result a new group, the Coalition on Legislation for the Elderly (COLE), was founded in 1976 by representatives from several groups besides CSWV, including the American Association of Retired Persons and the AFL-CIO. Bea Burgess, an early CSWV member and a long-time worker in church social-services programs, recalls, "We wanted to choose an organizational structure that would give us the clout we needed to get the attention of the legislators in Charleston." 

For some time, COLE operated without a structure or by-laws. Many months were spent determining goals and building up trust among the members of this broad-based coalition. I attended some of these early meetings because of my interest in legislative issues. We spent hours meeting in church social halls debating structure and strategy. Strong leaders emerged, including Bea Burgess and Ivan Assay — a retiree with tremendous energy and dedication. By 1977, the first officers were elected and the group began to grow as word spread among the state's senior programs. 

In late 1977, a car-load of elders from Marion County began traveling to Charleston to attend COLE's monthly meetings. The 40 or 50 participants usually present debated issues democratically and shared the tasks of research and writing necessary to develop well-defined group positions to present to the legislature. 

The spirit of dedication was infectious. Ivan Assay, for example, often came to the meetings carrying stacks of studies he had read in preparation. Pearl Kyre found herself heading up the group developing COLE's position paper on social services. Other members of the Marion County delegation studied the intricacies of the utility rate structure. Soon we were taking two cars from Marion County to the meetings, and by 1978 we had to use a van. 

Since few of the people involved with COLE were experienced lobbyists, we spent a lot of time learning while we were doing. The monthly meetings were used for education as well as planning. Staff people from agencies such as the Public Service Commission or what was then the Department of Welfare were invited to the meetings to contribute insights and statistics. After they left, we would decide on strategy. Sometimes a delegation would be sent to talk to the president of the state senate about bringing the state supplement to Supplemental Security Income to a floor vote. On other occasions we would use our locally established telephone trees to ask elders back home to call their legislators, urging support of funding for home health services. 

Following most COLE meetings, Pearl Kyre would call a meeting of the Marion County Legislative Committee to discuss the legislative agenda that had been set at the statewide meeting and decide how we in Marion County could contribute to these efforts. While MCSC had been one of the first local senior programs to become involved with the "senior power" movement, programs from other counties in the region had also begun to develop their advocacy efforts. By 1978 COLE was definitely a power to be reckoned with. 

One of COLE's first major victories was getting the legislature to pass a generic drug bill. Affordable health care had consistently shown up as a major concern of West Virginia elders, and COLE decided that requiring pharmacists to substitute less-expensive generic drugs for brand-name prescriptions would be one way of reducing costs for everybody. The first efforts to have such a bill passed began in 1976, and it became law in 1978, after three years of intense lobbying. 

Because most COLE members were new at advocacy, the fight to get the generic drug bill passed was a real learning experience. We were dueling with the drug manufacturers and the pharmacy association. Many phone calls and visits from people back home are necessary to make legislators ignore what they are told over dinner by professional lobbyists. 

Much self-education and many organizing techniques went into getting the necessary votes. The bill's drafters, for example, spoke at a COLE meeting to educate us on the important points and subtleties in the language of the proposed bill. MCSC and other local senior programs invited legislators to meetings "back home" at which people like Alta Knight described what passage of the bill would mean to them, giving specific examples of the costs of their prescriptions. Ivan Assay and Bea Burgess testified at the legislative committee's public hearing. At the annual Senior Citizens Days at the legislature, teams of elders were assigned to this issue and sought out key members of the health committees. And right before key votes, the COLE telephone tree would be activated and calls would bombard legislators from throughout the state. 

We were very pleased with the language of the bill passed. Although opponents had tried to weaken the bill, we had succeeded in making it mandatory for pharmacists to substitute the less-expensive generic drugs unless the doctor ordered otherwise. We celebrated and patted ourselves on the back. 

Then we discovered that the pharmacies were ignoring the legislation. That's when we learned a basic lesson of legislative advocacy — implementation is not automatic. Pearl Kyre, Ivan Assay, and others from COLE contacted the governor's office and the state health department and urged that the bill be enforced. Elders all over the state were encouraged to talk to their pharmacists. Marion County elders Pearl Bennett and Daisy Zeni, for example, had been using the same drug store for many years. It was difficult for them to confront their pharmacist, but they did. One by one, drug stores began substituting the generic drugs. After six months, the Department of Health put some teeth in its requirement that drug stores post the comparative prices of generic and brand-name drugs. 

Today, West Virginians of all ages are enjoying lower drug costs, at least in part because of the efforts of elder advocates. Tara Stevens of the Region VI AAA points out, "Seniors are a special-interest group, but many of their issues affect virtually every West Virginian." This refusal on the part of COLE and other senior advocacy groups to push senior citizens' interests at the expense of other grassroots groups has done much to build good will and maintain COLE's credibility. 

More and more frequently in recent years, COLE's work has consisted of fighting to keep valuable programs. On January 13, 1982, Governor Jay Rockefeller presented his "state of the state" address to the newly convened session of the state legislature. The nationwide recession had created a $91 million shortfall in state revenues; Gov. Rockefeller announced that each department of state government was required to absorb a 20 percent budget cut. The Department of Welfare decided to eliminate funding completely for many programs in nonprofit social service agencies. This budget decision, while perhaps "reasonable" on paper, was devastating in human terms. For senior citizens, it meant that homemaker and protective services for the most frail elders would be terminated abruptly. 

Those of us running the affected social service agencies were told that tough choices had to be made. But in light of the tremendous human suffering that these cuts would cause, COLE decided to try to save the programs. Jon Hunter and other AAA directors across the state developed figures on the amount of dollars being cut, the services being eliminated, and the clients who would be affected. COLE's telephone tree was again activated and the governor's office was flooded with calls from service recipients and concerned citizens. 

Individual state legislators heard from constituents like Pearl Bennett and Alta Knight by phone and letter. In Marion County and in several other counties local councils of social agencies and community action agencies became involved. Soon people from all age groups were contacting their legislators. Pearl Kyre and elder leaders in other areas were interviewed on television. Citizens all over the state became concerned about the threatened cutbacks. 

Within a week of the announcement by the Department of Welfare, bills were introduced in both houses of the state legislature to counteract the cuts. Before these bills could be passed, however, the department "found" some federal money which could be channeled to restore most of the threatened funds. The services continued to be provided. 

Each year, elders throughout the state work on several different issues. In 1984 victories included an adult protective services act (aimed at preventing abuse and neglect of elders by paid or unofficial caretakers), a strengthening of the Health Care Cost Review Authority (which must review and approve health care cost increases), and a 20 percent utility rate reduction for many low-income people of all ages. 

Defeats are also a part of the story. Medical and social services have been "trimmed" to the bone, and despite almost a decade of legislative lobbying, elder advocates have not been able to get the state to grant a supplement to Supplemental Security Income benefits. 

But senior citizens' advocacy continues on the grassroots level in West Virginia. Over 1,450 elders responded to CSWV's latest priorities survey, and elders continue to advocate for diverse improvements such as home-health services, rural transportation, and lower telephone base rates for low-income residential customers. 

Grassroots advocacy has proven to be an affirming and empowering experience for many elders. Long-time advocate Gene Hamer explains, "We must encourage other seniors to become involved. Grassroots advocacy is super-important for getting things done. It's also a way for many seniors to realize their personal potential."