New Jersey lawmakers move to create mobile service for seniors

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton.

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight is leading an effort to bring senior services directly to older adults living in New Jersey.

The Hudson County Democrat introduced legislation in February that would establish a state-operated mobile senior citizen assistance program within the Department of Health.

According to the proposed legislation, the mobile unit would post up at nursing homes, senior centers, and senior-related events, offering services such as help completing applications, providing food and transportation to those in need, and assisting with technology.

“Senior citizens are living longer. And since the pandemic, there are many seniors that cannot get out,” McKnight said. “Services are out there for them. However, some of them cannot get out to travel.”

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McKnight, who chairs the Assembly Aging and Senior Services Committee, stated that helping the elderly is one of her major passions. Before she joined the Legislature, she founded a nonprofit organization in Jersey City called Angela Cares, Inc.

According to its website, Angela Cares is “committed to strengthening communities by enhancing the quality of life through empowering seniors, their caregivers, and the youth.”

“During the pandemic, my entire team shifted our priority, and we delivered groceries to about 400 seniors a week throughout Hudson County, primarily Jersey City, because the seniors were vulnerable,” McKnight said.

The Assembly Aging and Senior Services Committee, composed of four Democrats and three Republicans, unanimously approved the measure last Friday.

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It’s unclear when it may reach the floor for a full Assembly vote. General Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) has the power to decide which bills reach the floor.

“The bill was second referenced to the Assembly Health Committee for its review. The Speaker certainly has a favorable view but would like more stakeholder input before it receives further consideration,” said Cecilia Williams, a spokesperson for Coughlin.

Though the Senate has not introduced the measure, Republican lawmakers “support improving services for seniors and making help more accessible,” according to Senate GOP communications director Bradley Schure.

Schure said that Republican lawmakers “continue to call for the formation of a special legislative committee with subpoena power to investigate the Murphy administration,” which faces multiple lawsuits over a string of coronavirus-related deaths at nursing homes in the state.

Currently, the state provides funding to county governments for senior services. The counties then allocate the funds to cities and townships based on the need for programming, Cherry Hill Mayor Susan Shin Angulo said.

“Whatever the state does to help our seniors I am 110% [in] support of it,” Shin Angulo said. “And I welcome [the legislation] here in Cherry Hill Township. These programs are so helpful because we have over 24,000 seniors … and the help with this mobile program would be convenient, helpful, and accessible.”

Shin Angulo did not readily know how much funding for senior services is allocated from Camden County, stating that there isn’t a specific line item in the township budget for it.

“We do a lot of shared services with the County,” Shin Angulo said.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted some of the struggles people face towards the end of their lives. The CDC reported that people 65 and older have accounted for 78% of COVID-related deaths since 2020. 

Susan Romano, executive director of Senior Citizens United Community Services in Audubon, said COVID, which has killed more than six million people worldwide, has caused fear amongst older adults in her area. Romano said there is “always a need” for more accessible services.

“We come in contact with probably close to 7,000 people, maybe a year,” Romano said.

“It’s taking a while for people to feel comfortable coming back out to agencies and programs that are opening up. For those people who are more isolated or more homebound, then getting into the community would be a good thing,” she said.

Senior Citizens United Community Services offers programs like telephone reassurance, nutrition guidance, and case management.

McKnight said state leaders have not yet fully calculated the costs for the proposal.

“We’re going to work with the Department of Health to see what the appropriation should be,” McKnight said.

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