Inside The Senior Alliance: Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (Ep 2.2)

Jason Maciejewski, CEO of The Senior Alliance, the area agency on aging serving Western and Southern Wayne County sits down with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents Michigan’s 13th congressional district, located in Wayne County, to discuss some of the most pressing needs and issues for older adults and people living with a disability in Western Wayne County and downriver.

Transcription

Jason Maciejewski (00:00):

Welcome to this episode of Inside the Senior Alliance, a podcast exploring resources and issues in the field of aging. I’m Jason Maciejewski, CEO of The Senior Alliance, the area agency on aging serving Western and Southern Wayne County. Today, I’m joined by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents Michigan’s 13th congressional district, located in Wayne County. Congresswoman, welcome to Inside the Senior Alliance.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (00:22):

Thank you so much for having me.

Jason Maciejewski (00:24):

So, Congresswoman, we’re going to launch right into it. Congress is a very visible elected office. What do you see the role of a member of Congress being and how does your work embody that vision?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (00:34):

Yeah. I think it’s really important to know you know, the value of the letterhead and the power of the office to convene people. I always tell folks, you know, sometimes it doesn’t really require new laws or various policies, but really around implementation. And sometimes the power of the letterhead to an administration, to a chair of a committee, to a department head to say, you know, this is not working for seasoned residents can really change someone’s life for the better. We’ve done it so many times on behalf of so many of my neighbors across my district, where, you know, from a landlord to, you know, a state agency putting the constituent concern on a letterhead and sending it through, all of a sudden in a week or so of the problem and challenge is resolved. Same thing with the power to convene. Again, sometimes it’s about implementation, so when I can get multiple agencies that are not talking to each other to come in a room and talk about how some of our most vulnerable are still left behind and why and things like that, and cutting some of that red tape, or some people call bureaucracy, can be really important. So, you know, the four neighborhood service centers, I’m the only member of Congress that has four, you know, really active service centers that focuses on that. And I truly believe it must go hand in hand with legislative work. Many of my bill ideas actually come from that approach. When that letterhead doesn’t work, or me picking up the phone doesn’t work, or me convening various agencies together doesn’t work, then yeah – policy change is necessary.

Jason Maciejewski (02:01):

Yeah. That idea of constituent service and being out in your district, or for us our service area, rings very familiar to me as we spend a lot of time with older adults trying to navigate systems for them and facilitating benefit applications. So, definitely appreciate your perspective on your work as a member of Congress.

Jason Maciejewski (02:21):

The 13th congressional district is very diverse. There’s an array of ethnic, economic, and social backgrounds in your district. And what do you see as the most pressing needs and issues for older adults and people living with a disability in Western Wayne County and downriver?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (02:35):

For me, it is the safe and healthy home. So much of my residents who may need healthcare may need some issues around mental health or a lot of care regarding as they get older some of that assistant care – all of that will always require a safe and healthy home to be in. And so, I hear so many of my residents, especially my seasoned residents, about accessibility into their home, you know, changing their bathroom so that they can get their wheelchair in, or they don’t have to worry about slipping and falling, or being able to not have to go up the stairs, and things of that nature is…and being able to stay in their home. You know, one of the things that everyone talks about is always moving my season residents. My seasoned neighbors want to stay in their home. They live longer when they stay in their home. It is what they know and love, and for me, especially as they have earned their right to, you know, retire with human dignity, that requires them to stay in their home. And so, I hear a lot of my residents, of course talk about healthcare, of course talk about neighborhood quality of life, and so forth. But, overwhelmingly what we hear in our neighborhood service centers are ‘I gotta get my house repaired, it’s falling apart. I can’t afford it.’ And again, these are not things that sometimes we think about retirement or thinking when we get older and, you know, having a lot of challenges with our healthcare or just our bodies are not working the way we would hope. We didn’t, you know…a lot of my neighbors don’t budget for that, or don’t plan for that. I mean, they’re in a safe home, but as years go by, they realize, ‘Oh my God, the gutter’s falling apart. Then I got, you know, a leaky roof, plumbing is out of order,’ and, you know, they’re getting high rates of water. Their water rates are going up because of that. It’s just so many of those things. And we’ve got to go beyond thinking of weatherization, right? You reducing utility. We’ve got to also talk about accessibility, talk about, again, making it a safe home as well.

Jason Maciejewski (04:25):

Yeah. Really appreciate that being a focus for you. That’s really our mission, is to help people remain in their homes, living in the community they want to be in. So, we really appreciate, you know, hearing that that’s your focus as well as a member of Congress.

Jason Maciejewski (04:38):

I want to shift to an issue that’s become a focus for us at The Senior Alliance. Over the next three years, we’re going to be implementing a new multi-year plan, and that’s the plan that we give to the state of Michigan telling them how we’re gonna expend those Older Americans Act dollars and Older Michiganian Act dollars. And as part of that plan, we identify targeted communities, and upcoming for the next three years, we’ve got two targeted communities –one of them being the Arab American community, and one of them being the Hispanic community in that Northern part of downriver, that Lincoln Park/Melvindale/Ecorse-River Rouge area. And I know that you and Congresswoman Dingle introduced a resolution to recognize April as Arab American Heritage Month, and being that that’s a community that’s a focus for us, what are the particular challenges that you see amongst older adults in the Arab American community?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (05:29):

You know, sometimes, you know, and I don’t think of them as barriers. They’re just a unique lens on what care for them means, right? For many that I hear is not having, again, the ability, and again, very similar to other of my seasoned residents across the state really, about the home and so forth. But it’s also understanding what is, you know, available, how to reach out. Many, again, especially like my mother who grew up in Palestine, as she’s getting older here, is really unaware of various programs. And because they didn’t exist in her communities and neighborhoods, I mean, people just stayed in their villages and their neighborhoods. And so for them, it is just uniquely different to be thinking about, you know, ‘Oh, there’s an organization called Senior Alliance. They do this or that.’ And really just letting them know these organizations are there for them and that in our country, all of the hard work and resources, tax dollars, all these things that go back into our society to come back to them to take care of them in their time of retirement, or again, their seasoned years. I just think so many of my Arab American neighbors are just completely unaware because, like my mother said, ‘This is why I have my children.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, mom.’ And we’re there for her 150%, but I know for us, you know, we always do need help and want to look at various programs that help her while we’re away at work or with our own families and so forth. So, I think with the Arab American community, the challenge is understanding those programs and that they are there for them and people like, you know, I think of a woman right now in my head that thinks, ‘Well, that’s only, you know, that isn’t for me, that’s for folks that maybe don’t have means or something.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re also being very challenged. You need help with chores right now.’ You know, I was at her doorstep and she was telling me how hard it’s been to just be able to take care of her home and like getting the grass cut and things like that. And people think, well, no, for many of my seasoned residents, it keeps them up at night. It really weighs on them. And so I think for, again, for my own experience with my own mother and grandmother and so forth, it’s that pride, but also not truly being aware that these programs and services were built for them. Because again, I think just with our young, vulnerable children and so forth, as many of our seasoned residents are getting up in age, but also with challenges increasing – that again, these were built for them, and they’re there for them, and there’s no one out there saying you can’t access them. I hope that makes sense because I think as listeners think about this as yeah, they call it cultural barriers, right? or various things, but it is a mindset. But, I even see it in my seasoned residents among my black neighbors, you know, coming from the south, back in the day is just not thought of to reach out, to get some of these services, and again, to understand that they’re built for them and there’s nothing wrong in accessing them.

Jason Maciejewski (08:26):

Very often we find that people don’t ask for help, or that assistance, or even that information until they’re in an emergency situation. And, you know, one of the common themes that we’ve touched on today is housing. It’s a critical issue for so many older adults. You’ve mentioned the fixed incomes that people live on, but many older adults would like to downsize, move to a location that doesn’t require as much upkeep. How do you see the housing issue evolving for older adults?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (08:53):

Yeah. You know, I see it in some communities even in Oakland County moving towards that direction of just having, you know, their own built…their own village, as I say, of our seasoned citizens that, you know, are in various co-ops, or I’ve been to so many what I call sometimes ‘senior buildings’ or ‘senior living,’ and there’s a social worker on-site. There is, you know, someone there that has their back 24-7 if it’s run correctly, right? But it is a different feel. And a lot of my seasoned citizens, they struggle or push back. They like their own home because there’s a lot of privacy to it and so forth. But, after a year of talking to some of my residents who transitioned into some of that space, they love it. There is friendships being developed in this kind of extended – what we call extended chosen family –there supporting them. For me, you know, I like the idea around building these villages that are accessible, affordable, and safe. And, you know, as you said, the market or whatever we want to call it, it’s not just my seasoned neighbors that are struggling to have access to affordable housing, it’s everyone. So, I can’t even imagine my residents who are at the age where, I mean, talking about going…I just spoke to somebody in Livonia yesterday who’s, you know, working on weekends. She’s, you know, she’s a senior, she’s working on weekends so that she can afford the high cost of food now and everything, and it’s just heartbreaking to think about that. But you know, housing is a human right. Especially for our seasoned citizens, we should be able to make sure, again, it’s affordable and accessible. And we have to move toward this direction. So, if it’s that collective village type of housing or us building or rehabbing or creating other spaces for our seasoned citizens to have a home that, you know, they feel safe in, that is taken care of and so forth, you know, of course, we want to do that. I think is the best thing the federal government can do is to provide housing for their residents, especially our most vulnerable.

Jason Maciejewski (10:57):

Let’s step over to the appropriations process for a minute. And, the fiscal year 22 Final Appropriations Act was recently signed into law, and it includes many important services that The Senior Alliance implements through the Older Americans Act. One of those was an increase for the Medicare State Health Insurance Program, which in Michigan, we call MMAP. And map helps many older adults understand their Medicare and Medicaid enrollment choices by explaining options to them in an unbiased manner. And as a member of Congress, do you see a future expansion of Medicare-covered benefits? And if so, what types of services would you see being added?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (11:36):

I think it is an incredible opportunity right now to expand it, including vision and dental care, and even lowering the age requirement for the closest thing to universal healthcare that we have right now, but you have to..it is only triggered by age, or in some other cases, but, you know, and I think it’s incredibly important as listeners think about this is there’s a real good attempt, a very popular attempt, to lower the age down to even 50 years old. And there’s an aggressive attempt from members like myself and others to make sure it is expanded vision, dental, and hearing. People are still shocked to understand that not all of our seasoned residents get access to hearing aids or, you know, some other, really what I would call expansive, you know, vision care and so forth. So, it is something that I know many of members like myself and some of the progressive caucus are incredibly supportive of understanding that the way the system is now for the Medicare program is not working because it’s leaving too many people behind.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (12:40):

And as we can see, healthcare costs..before folks were talking about the cost of…Healthcare costs have been skyrocketing. Uh, you want to talk about price gouging and gas gouging, no! Look at the healthcare industry. They’re probably learning from them how to do it. But, it is important to understand, like members of Congress that are some of us new members, are hearing that expansion of Medicare-covered benefits is a priority for so many of our residents across the country. Unfortunately, I’ve heard it from all different, whatever you’re thinking, you know…folks like to divide us by, ‘Oh, this is a Republican’… no. What seems to really bring us a lot together and we want to talk about bipartisanship outside of Congress, it’s around this issue of expanded Medicare.

Jason Maciejewski (13:25):

Yeah. There’s certainly a lot of discussion around the issue and we appreciate your support of the Older Americans Act and those Medicare dollars in the past. But, let’s look towards fiscal year 23. The President’s fiscal year 23 budget proposal includes investment in many of the Older Americans Act titles we’ve been advocating for as an area agency on aging, and these include supportive services, nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels and Congregate Meals, the National Family Caregiver Support Program. And the President has also recommended a nearly 50% increase to the long-term care Ombudsman Program. And while these total amounts aren’t exactly what we’ve been advocating for, we appreciate the attention that’s been given to these areas. Congresswoman, how do you see the fiscal year 23 budget process playing out?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (14:10):

I think in the House side, and again, maybe I’m biased, but I’ve seen it is overwhelmingly supported to even go beyond what the recommendation of the President is in some of the areas that you mention, especially the supportive services. You know, you hear so many of my House colleagues, including Congresswoman Debbie Dingle, talk about long-term care expansions and covering those benefits, as well as, you know, of course, we want the nutrition programs and making sure that’s available. And again, you know, some of my seasoned residents actually saw decreases in it in the previous years, and seeing an increase there is incredibly important as we can see with the cost of food just dramatically increasing. But I, of course, support the 50% increase to the Older American funded, you know, long-term care Ombudsman program is important. We need an advocate, but I would urge us to actually cover the services themselves, and then really focus on oversight of implementation and making sure that it, again, it’s not leaving anybody behind. But, I know on the House side, primarily because, you know, many of my colleagues are experiencing it themselves as they are becoming seasoned residents themselves and seeing it, I think Congresswoman Debbie Dingle constantly said she didn’t really fully understand what was going on in long-term care in our country until her late beloved husband, Congressman John Dingle, was going through it, and even with the access to resources and health coverage that they had, they still struggled. So, I think many of my colleagues know that the system is broken and not built..or it’s not like a safety net there. And so, I know on the House side, you’ll see some of these requests for the increases for 2023 being very present there. Some probably even will go beyond some of the recommendations, primarily because we know it’s gonna be a fight in the Senate to get them to agree.

Jason Maciejewski (16:03):

We have many advocates in our network. And what advice would you give them on how they can effectively advocate on behalf of older adults to a member of Congress?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (16:12):

I think it’s really important to engage the people they serve in elevating them, and many do a very good job. I think Senior Alliance does a tremendous job. As a person that now has..this is going to be my, you know, third appropriation cycle…is please don’t wait until everyone else is lobbying and advocating. Coordinate site visits for your member to come out, to look at the services because, you know, what happens is around appropriations time…and I understand, you know, not everybody has the capacity to do it all year round…but, what I’m saying is have it incorporated similar to the programming for the residents that advocates serve is to engage the member early on, bring them out, let them see those programs because during appropriations, what they call appropriation cycle or season, we’re getting, as my team will tell you, 20-30 sometimes meetings within, you know, a two week period of various organizations. And, you know, I love the lobby days, you know, especially when it’s not the for-profit special interest groups, but actual advocates and amazing coalitions built around housing, senior living, things like that. But, I want everyone to know in the district, bring Congress to the district, meaning you don’t have to go to Washington D.C. to engage your member. Engage them right here at home. Bring them into the center. I can tell you it dramatically…you know, I’m always a big advocate already…but it really dramatically changes my mindset because then I move with a lot more urgency. When I actually see and hear about the hopes and dreams of organizations meeting the seniors that are getting served, it’s those images and those stories that I remember as the appropriation season comes along. And so, I would encourage folks to be hands-on. It’s not just the letters, it’s not just the meetings, but bring them to your centers, bring them to actually see what is happening in the agency and the organization. That is something that will be remembered much longer than a letter.

Jason Maciejewski (18:11):

Thank you for that, and we definitely appreciated when you spent a considerable amount of time with us pre-pandemic and visiting our facility and talking with our staff. You know, could you share a story with us about somebody that is in your district, a constituent, that you as a member of Congress has helped and really made an impact on their life?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (18:31):

Yeah. You know, one of my seniors, I’ll call her Mother W., she, you know, lives in Romulus, you know, as somebody that lives alone, doesn’t have any children, and she calls me her top daughter now, but early on, she started having really just struggles and challenges to get in her home. And she was already in a co-op. She was in the setting where she didn’t have to worry about some of the outdoor chores, including, you know, getting the snow shoveled away and so forth. However, she needed a ramp, and she really didn’t even know where to start. She kept hitting walls. I mean, she was…there was all these struggles. And so, I used the power of the letterhead, the power of our office, meaning like, you know, me picking up the phone instead of her because it wasn’t working, to call the city administration and say, ‘We’re seeing a struggle here and there’s some discrimination.’ And sure enough, because I called, they called the co-op, the folks managing the property, they all started talking to each other because it was months and months. She had not told me about those challenges until, you know, of course, she’s breaking down and she just felt helpless. And she said, ‘How am I gonna get up…’, I mean, so painful for her to get up the stairs. And so, they didn’t take me introducing a bill or calling various state, you know, federal agency, it just calling the city administration, telling the story, having people talk to – again, the power to convene them. And it got resolved. She was incredibly, you know, so frustrated because she was confused and she didn’t know really what she was doing wrong. But, when folks understood her story and understood her background, she didn’t just become a name, she was now Mother W. who loves her cat and is, you know, very active in her, you know, church community in the neighborhood. She became a real person. And again, I think it’s really important, you know, and Senior Alliance does this already, but I think it’s really important to think about, you know, raising the bar, what you expect your member of Congress to do. It isn’t just legislation. Sometimes just being that advocate and, you know, I’m a social worker at heart, but being that advocate can really change someone’s life dramatically. Doing all of that finally gave her, you know, she felt a little bit like her human dignity was being chipped away and we were able to give it back to her by advocating on her behalf.

Jason Maciejewski (20:51):

Many times it takes that one phone call and that one connection for somebody’s story to be heard to help somebody out and make that improvement, so thanks again for sharing that. If a constituent wants to connect with your office, how can they do that?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (21:04):

Yeah, so our four neighborhood service centers are throughout the district. The main number to call is (313) 463-6220. Again, (313) 463-6220. You can also email us like that if you prefer…calls are just fine by the way…but it’s Rashida@mail.house.gov. When you call, if we’re not picking up, just know this, if you leave a message, you get a call back within a day or so. And, you know, again, most of my staff are in the district. I actually have less staff in D.C. Most of my staff are in the district doing primarily this kind of work. You know, my door is always open to folks, even if it’s local issues, county issues, you know, quality life issues, you may not think automatically, ‘I’m going to call my member of Congress,’ but just know that I’m meeting organizations like Senior Alliance, or, you know, other agencies and organizations that, you know, when I can help do that connection and, you know, get you all the services that you need, or just an advocate to hear you out so that we can triage and figure out how to improve, improve that a challenge or that issue, just know, again, it can be very transformative. It is the thing that most excites me about what I do is being able to change somebody’s life today versus a bill that may or may not change someone’s life in five or 10 or 15 years.

Jason Maciejewski (22:32):

Great. Thank you. And I wanted to just step back just a second and thank you for including The Senior Alliance in the work that you’re doing on housing policy. Related to that, we’ve definitely appreciated the opportunity to talk about the challenges older adults face with housing and the attention that you’re giving to that issue. So, we appreciate that very much.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (22:52):

You know, and I appreciate you all. You all really are the ears and eyes on the ground. And so, when we’re thinking about the housing bill, as you know, I’ve been working on a number of them, your lens is important. And so, I just appreciate you all making sure and kind of checking over to make sure that it is going to be meaningful. And again, I don’t like introducing bills that are not gonna be effective. I want it to be able to touch people’s lives in a meaningful way.

Jason Maciejewski (23:15):

So, is there anything you want to add today to our conversation that we haven’t touched on?

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (23:19):

No. Just I want my seasoned neighbors and folks listening to know our government’s supposed to be about people, and it’s okay to reach out and ask for help. I just don’t want folks to think that life has to be worse than it is now. You shouldn’t only just be able to survive, you should be able to thrive. Remember that when you think about – do I pick up the phone and call Senior Alliance? Do I pick up the phone and call my member of Congress? We’re here to work for you all. And I just don’t want any hesitation. And again, if it wasn’t Mother W. who hesitated and thought, ‘Well, it’s okay. I don’t need help.’ It’s like, no! This is why we’re here! This is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. So I just…please don’t hesitate. I want you to be able to thrive and be able to have a good quality of life, to be able to put your head on that pillow and not worry about whether or not you’re gonna be struggling the next day.

Jason Maciejewski (24:04):

Congresswoman Tlaib, thanks for joining us today on the podcast.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (24:07):

Thank you so much for having me.

Jason Maciejewski (24:08):

If anyone has questions about services or programs, The Senior Alliance offers, you can call us at 1(800) 815-1112 or email us at info@thesenioralliance.org. Information about our agency or the programs and services we offer can be found on our website at www.thessenioralliance.org. On Facebook, we can be located by searching for The Senior Alliance. And finally, our Twitter handle is @AAA1C. I’m Jason Maciejewski. Thank you for listening to this episode of Inside the Senior Alliance.

Speaker 3 (24:41):

Inside the senior Alliance is a production of The Senior Alliance and Blazing Kiss Media.

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