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Lessons from the Hill: Can one person make a difference? You bet.

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Joe Franco,  VP, Grassroots at LeadingAge
Joe Franco, VP, Grassroots at LeadingAge

To many Americans, political activism is extreme, conjuring up images of citizens marching in our nation's capital, holding sit-ins and singing chants at a rally.

Headline grabbing events are important political actions to be sure: They capture attention, garner enthusiasm, and encourage commitment. But rallies and marches aren't — and can't — be daily affairs.

Much of the participation that drives our country's governance happens on a smaller scale, in more targeted interactions. Fly-ins and lobby days to visit lawmakers and their D.C.-based staff have an impact, as can attest the stalwart LeadingAge members who, on March 21, trudged through sleet and six inches of snow at this year's annual PEAK Lobby Day. Despite the conditions, members participated in 93 congressional meetings.

A one-on-one discussion with Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, for instance, allowed LeadingAge Georgia CEO Ginny Helms to share a clear example of our members' concerns with the nursing home survey process. She left with a positive feeling and a sense that her elected official was willing to address it.

Interactions such as Ginny's illustrate the value of a hike to Capitol Hill. However, with almost 15 years' experience in grassroots advocacy, working for causes from cancer to Alzheimer's prior to my current focus on aging services, has me convinced: Each and any one of us can have an impact without leaving our home turf.

That's important, not only to LeadingAge's more than 6,000 members and the older Americans they serve, but to everyone involved in the field. Never before have we been under attack like we are now. Broad efforts focused on ‘entitlement reform' threaten Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Demand for affordable housing for older Americans, already in short supply, is growing, and cuts are being threatened. Regulatory reform of nursing homes is crucial to be able to provide the high-quality care, but overly burdensome regulations leave less time for caring for residents.

The good news: Effective advocacy is a skill that can be learned, honed and perfected.

Putting a face to aging issues is key to success and below are four tips on making an impact as a hometown advocate.

What is an advocate: Broadly, being an advocate means that you create and build a lasting relationship with your elected officials. You identify your wants, and you ask for them. Be specific, whether a request for funds, a visit to your site or support for a specific policy stance. Be respectful, consistent and persistent; you want to be viewed as a trusted resource who represents the constituents your elected officials serve.

Connecting with your legislator and staff: First, identify your lawmakers (find them at house.gov and senate.gov.). Read up on his/her positions, the issues he/she champions and the political environment in which he/she operates (e.g., won by a landslide; threatened in upcoming elections, etc.). Determine how your needs might dovetail with his/hers. Plan your narrative and requests so they understand the purpose of your visit and how you think they can help. Reach out to your officials' local office with a phone call or email and get to know staffers. They are important conduits to your legislator and will likely welcome the opportunity to meet you. Ask them: How can I be a resource for you? Last fall, executives at River Garden in Jacksonville, FL, invited their recently elected congressman to their community to help him learn about the challenges and issues facing nursing homes and other agencies providing care to older Americans. “We have a tradition of inviting elected officials to our community — particularly when our representation has changed,” said Randy Kammer, board member and co-chair of the public policy committee at River Garden. “With Representative Rutherford, for instance, we explained the impact of potential policy changes to Medicaid as well as other issues.”

Help them understand your concerns and the issues facing your community: Invite your official to your community to help him/her understand the concerns and needs of the people you serve. Show them, if possible, what you want to have addressed (e.g., how overly burdensome nursing home regulations keep staff focused on paperwork rather than on resident care). In one prime example, LeadingAge Virginia's CEO Melissa Andrews in late 2017 invited Virginia State Sen. Rosalyn Dance to tour four LeadingAge members. She met residents and board members, and learned more about issues in assisted living communities and whether legislation on staffing ratios made sense. “Get these elected officials into your communities as often as possible,” Andrews recommends.

Meet them where they are: Attend public meetings, such as town hall gatherings or even Facebook Live events. If your legislator is active on social media, share your thoughts. Comments on social media do get lawmakers' attention and will be recorded by congressional staff, particularly when positive.

Repeat: You, and your concerns, have a greater chance of being remembered if you keep the conversation going; follow up, return, and don't be forgotten. Meeting every few months is a great way to build the relationship and establish yourself as a resource, not just an advocate who shows up only in times of need.

With these tips, you can become part of a movement to change public policy. Your voice is vital and can make all the difference.

Joe Franco is Vice President, Grassroots at LeadingAge, a D.C.-based association representing 6,000-plus nonprofit providers of aging services.

Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.

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