How Senior Week at the Capitol Contributed to New Funding for Aging Services  

It’s no secret that Georgia’s population is growing older and it’s doing so quickly.  In fact, by 2030, more than 20 percent of Georgians will be 60 or older.  The Atlanta Regional Commission and its partner organizations are committed to ensuring these older adults have the right support systems and services to age well. The Georgia Council on Aging (GCOA) is one of those partners that exists to advance the needs of older adults. 

The State of Georgia’s Legislature created GCOA in 1977 to be the leading statewide advocacy group working to improve the quality of life for older Georgians through public policy. GCOA consists of 20 council members appointed by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, and the Department of Human Services Commissioner, supported by a three-member staff. 

In turn, GCOA created the Coalition of Advocates for Georgia’s Elderly (CO-AGE) as a grassroots organization where members drive the focus and activities of the organization.  CO-AGE advocates with, and on behalf of, aging Georgians and their families to improve their quality of life through educating, advising, informing, and making recommendations concerning programs for the elderly in Georgia. 

Over the years, CO-AGE has influenced several areas of legislation such as: funding for senior services, caregiver support, elder abuse, and dementia support. 

Each year, members who join the organization can submit issues to be considered as top legislative and budget priorities. Members then vote on submitted issues to determine the top priorities and advocate for support of those priorities by state legislators. 

During the 2024 Legislative Session, CO-AGE lobbied for a $10 million increase in funding for non-Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS).  When the Session ended Thursday, March 28, legislators had allocated $550,000 in new funding for these vital services. The funding will help provide support for some of the more than 6,500 people who are currently on the non-Medicaid HCBS wait list which grew to more than twice its previous levels during peak COVID years.  

People waiting for services are looking for much needed care such as homemaker services, personal support services, and home-delivered meals. Receiving these services at home can help delay premature nursing home care by more than four years and appeals to older adults who, in general, state a preference in remaining in their familiar homes.  

There is also a benefit to Georgia taxpayers. In 2023, the average annual cost of HCBS per person was $1,516 versus an annual cost of $79,896 for nursing home care paid for by state Medicaid funding. 

Read on to learn more about Senior Day at the Capitol from participants’ perspectives.  

An Exciting Year at the Capitol for Those Advocating for Senior Services 

Each year, the Coalition of Advocates for Georgia’s Elderly (CO-AGE) hosts Senior Week, which includes various events, such as Senior Day at the Capitol. This event allows older adults to talk to their legislators about issues important to them. It’s a great way to speak their minds and be directly involved in making change. 

ARC Communications staffer, Jhazzmyn Joiner, spoke with Sharise Byrd, Strategic Planning and Quality Section Manager, who helped coordinate Senior Week. She served as the chairperson for Senior Day at the Capitol. Here’s what Sharise had to say: 

Q: What is Senior Week and why was it created?  

A: Senior Week was created for a couple of reasons. First, the event helps our older adults connect with their legislators and provides an opportunity to advocate for priorities that impact this cohort. It also helps to remind legislators of the power of older adults and makes sure they are not forgotten. We want to ensure that their priorities, needs, and focus areas are emphasized. Another important activity during the week is the recognition of the 2024 Distinguished Older Georgian who has made indelible impacts in their community and operates in leadership and servanthood. 

Q: Who participates and why? 

A: Senior week is a statewide activity, so there are constituents from intrastate. You have individuals from senior centers, various counties, and adult day health centers.  Many are savvy and advocate in their local areas and want to come see legislators at the capitol. Essentially, senior week is open to any older adult who wants to advocate for legislative initiatives. 

Q: What was special about this year?  

A: We registered over 400 participants and that’s the largest in-person group we have had post-COVID. Again, it’s not just metro-Atlanta. It’s regional and statewide, with seniors who are willing to commute and deal with challenges of standing for long periods of time, just to be sure their legislative voice is heard.  

Q: What was the big ask this year and how was it determined?  

A: Overall, the coalition’s job is to educate and advocate for older adults with the governor, legislative governor, various state commissioners (Department of Health and Human Services, Behavioral Health, etc.). Each year, Georgia’s CO-AGE advocates for an annual budget and legislative priorities.  Year-round, citizens are encouraged to become members of CO-AGE so they can vote on priorities in July. Organizations and individuals can join.  

This year CO-AGE members chose to advocate for updating the Georgia code for multidisciplinary teams for adult abuse, neglect, and exploitation. We asked for a bill to address medical aid in dying, which has been recommended to a study committee to conduct more research and oversight. The budget ask was additional funding for Home and Community-Based Services, to help move clients from our waitlist to actual services.   

Q: What was one exciting moment from the event this year?  

A: An exciting moment was seeing so many seniors at the capitol who are truly engaged in our democratic and legislative processes. I love seeing older adults who are still actively engaged in what is occurring within our state. 

This image shows aging advocates at the Capitol Senior Day.
Photo of Victoria Huynh, Sharise Thurman Byrd, and other aging advocates at the Capitol. Photo credits: Victoria Huynh.

ARC Partner, Mildred Schmelz, Recognized as the 2024 Distinguished Older Georgian 

In addition to advancing policy issues during Senior Week, legislators recognized an older adult for her contributions to advancing the needs of the senior population.  This year’s Distinguished Older Georgian is Mildred Schmelz, a 70-year-old native of Albany, Georgia. She currently resides in Henry County and has been an advocate for senior citizens and individuals with disabilities in the metro Atlanta area since 1975.  

Schmelz attended Albany Junior College, Emory School of Law (Audit), the National Center for Paralegal Training, and Strayer University. She worked 14 years for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc., 12 years in the In-house–Counsel Division of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta, and 10 years with Fulton County Government.  

Schmelz began her advocacy as a family law paralegal and administrative law paralegal representing battered women and persons with disabilities. She continued her advocacy on the Henry County Planning and Zoning Commission, discouraging gentrification. As Chair of the Henry Council on Aging, Inc., she organized the first visit by Henry County seniors to the Georgia State Capitol to engage with their state legislators.  

Schmelz enjoys being a part of Georgia Council on Aging, Inc. because the organization has given her an opportunity to engage with other seasoned adults and our Georgia state legislators on a more personal level. She loves the fact the Georgia Council on Aging is a collaborative organization combining many organizations working for the betterment of older adults who live in the State of Georgia. 

She has a passion for serving people and as a three-time breast cancer survivor she became a founding member and board member of the Harbor of Hope, Inc., a cancer support group. Schmelz and other advocates were successful in creating the first cancer wellness center at Piedmont Henry Hospital and the first boutique providing hats, scarves, wigs, bras, prosthesis, etc. for cancer patients and survivors free of charge. 

Following is a conversation ARC staff Jhazzmyn Joiner had with Ms. Schmelz after receiving her award.  

Q: Was this your first time attending Senior Day at the Capital? If not, how long have you been attending? 

A: This is not my first time. I have been involved with Georgia Council on Aging and Co-Age for several years pre-COVID. I served previously as a guide for older adults attending Senior Day to help them maneuver at the Capitol. I attended CO-AGE meetings for many years in Macon. I served as a member and Chair of the Henry County Council on Aging, and on the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Advisory Committee on Aging. As a member of these organizations, I have been involved in senior issues for many years. 

Q: What made you attend Senior Day at the Capitol?  

A: I feel the biggest impact comes from talking to legislators and asking for monies needed for older adults. I love talking to and engaging with legislators and making them understand the needs of older adults. 

Q: What did you hope to accomplish this year?  

A: Advocates for older adults and CO-AGE asked state legislators for $10 million in funding for non-Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services and a statewide adult abuse, neglect, and exploitation elder coalition. We asked for this money because it is much needed. We try to make sure legislators understand what these needs are.  

Q: How did things go? 

A: I think our visit to the state legislators went very well. I did not spend a lot of time with the legislators because of my awards ceremony, however, I’ve spoken to my state legislators, and I have all of them on speed dial, so I can pick up the phone and call them. 

Q: What was your favorite part of Senior Week this year? 

A: Every year, the sheer number of older adults who show up at the Capitol, advocating for themselves and other older adults – that’s always my favorite part. I probably should say that my favorite part this year was being awarded the Distinguished Older Georgian Awards, but I am always amazed at how many older adults show up. 

Q: What does it mean to you to be the Distinguished Older Georgian this year?  

A: First, it was a shock. Distinguished means respected and admired for excellence, both as a person and the work that one does. I don’t consider myself to be distinguished, but it’s an honor that others think of me as such. I’ve always tried to be an advocate, not just for older adults but because I am aging, it’s very important for me to advocate for myself and other older adults. It’s just engrained in me. 

Q: What happens next with the issues you brought to the capitol?  

A: The House and Senate approved a $550,000 increase. It is not nearly the amount we asked for, but it still makes a significant difference. 

Q: How do you feel knowing the bill got passed and that you were instrumental in that process?  

A: It is always good to know that one is instrumental in GOOD change, and I am no exception. 

Q: What would you say to anyone hoping to get involved or attend next year? 

A: I would say, that as older adults we should be the change that we want to see happen in this state. I would encourage younger people to support the issues that we have presented because one day, they are going to be old. Also, lots of younger people, if blessed and fortunate, have parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who are older. I’d say to these young people – advocate for them.