Senior Tar Heel Legislature rep talks policies, need for more work to sustain quality of life for N.C.’s older adults


Robin Leto is a registered nurse and dietitian who spent most of her career working with an older population. She had positions in a state office on aging, as well as working as a nursing home surveyor and health care personnel registry investigator in N.C. In addition, Leto also consulted in nutrition and nursing for a number of nursing homes in several states.

After her retirement, she began volunteering in Chatham County’s senior centers, working within the Council on Aging.

“After so many years of working with senior citizens,” she says, “I find that I am one myself!”

Today, she’s also working on a state level as a member of the Senior Tar Heel Legislature. This week, we speak to Leto about the NCSTHL and its goals.

Let’s start with a big picture topic: our aging country. What does longevity and the growth skew toward “old” mean for Chatham and the state?

There are 1.8 million citizens 60 years old and older in N.C.. They make up 23% of the state population and 35% of the Chatham County population. By 2041, it is expected that 27% of the state population and 41% of the Chatham County population will be 60 and over.

It is important to keep these elders as healthy and independent as possible both for their quality of life and for cost effectiveness for the taxpayers.

You’re a delegate in the N.C. Senior Tar Heel Legislature (NCSTHL). How did you come to that position?

Dennis Streets, who was the director of the Chatham County Council on Aging at the time, asked me if I would like to apply for the alternate position with the NCSTHL. I served as alternate for several years. After the Chatham County delegate retired last year, I was appointed to the delegate position. David Marty is the new alternate.

For those unfamiliar with it, what is the NCSTHL and how does it function?

The NCSTHL is a non-partisan all volunteer group. We were authorized by the General Assembly in 1993 and tasked by the General Assembly to be their eyes and ears throughout the state. We seek ways to sustain the quality of life for older adults. Older adults living in N.C. continue to be vulnerable and at risk of living in poverty, hunger, isolation and poor health.

Each county can appoint a delegate and an alternate. Both must be 60 or older and live in the county they represent. The NCSTHL meets three times per year to study issues and develop legislative recommendations. To develop our legislative priorities, we vote on our legislative recommendations. The five recommendations that receive the most votes become our priorities for the legislative session.

What legislative priorities does the NCSTHL have now?

We are asking for a total increase of $20 million per year in recurring funds. This may sound like a large amount, but it only represents 0.26% of the state budget, while adults over 60 represent 23% of our state’s population.

I will briefly review our priorities for the current legislative session:

1. Allocate an additional $8M in recurring funds for Adult Protective Services (APS) to address staff shortages. County social services departments are charged with evaluating reports of abuse, neglect, and exploitation through their APS programs. These services are funded through the federal and county governments with no state funds. These additional funds would help counties hire more APS staff to meet the growing number of reports as the elder population grows.

2. Increase the Senior Center General Purpose Appropriation by $1,265,316 in recurring funds. Adjusted for inflation, funding to support senior centers has decreased 18% since 2004 while the population over 60 has grown by 82%. Senior centers are not clubs for older people. They provide vital services such as good nutrition, psychological and physical support, as well as socialization. These services decrease health care costs by preventing rather than treating diseases while improving the quality of life for participants.

3. Allocate an additional 8M in recurring funds for the Home and Community Care Block Grant (HCCBG). The HCCBG is the primary funding source for community-based programs that support people ages 60 and older. Adjusted for inflation, funding has actually decreased 10% since 2004 while the population over 60 has grown 82%.

Each county receives an allotment of HCCBG funds and customizes the services offered to meet the needs of the seniors in their county. Some of the many services which can be provided through the HCCBG are home delivered and congregate meals, transportation, in-home aid, and home repair. These programs help maintain independence for older people. Even a daily home delivered meal can prevent some older people from moving to a nursing home.

4. Allocate an additional $1.5M in recurring funds for 11 additional long-term care ombudsmen. Ombudsmen serve as advocates for residents in nursing homes and assisted living communities, providing protections for vulnerable elders. Industry standards recommend 1 ombudsman for every 2000 long term care beds. To meet that standard, 11 additional ombudsmen are needed in our state.

5. Strengthen long-term care staffing standards. In nursing homes, there are mandated minimum staffing levels for RNs and LPNs, but none for nursing assistants. The nursing assistant is the person who provides most of the hands-on care for residents. They bathe, groom, dress, feed, and transport residents to meals and activities. They often have overwhelming patient loads, making quality care impossible. Staffing standards for nursing assistants will improve the quality of care for those who cannot care for themselves.

How are you generating support for those priorities?

We are speaking with members of the General Assembly representing our county. We are also speaking about our priorities in the senior centers and to the press. We are trying to explain why our priorities will actually save money for the taxpayers as well as improve quality of life for senior citizens.

If any legislators are reading this, what would your chief message be to them?

These priorities are vital to our state. Senior citizens are not only a strong voting block but they provide many in-kind services to our communities through their volunteering and other activities. It is important for our legislators to understand that providing these services is not only cost-effective but will improve the quality of life for many seniors.

For more information, go to Contact Leto at