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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Longtime advocate to lead Mass. AARP

Kiki Chaiton, Jacinta Arena, and others seniors protested against waiting lists for home care at the State House yesterday. Michael Festa, the state’s new AARP head, said funding the program will be one of his top priorities.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Kiki Chaiton, Jacinta Arena, and others seniors protested against waiting lists for home care at the State House yesterday. Michael Festa, the state’s new AARP head, said funding the program will be one of his top priorities.

A former state representative and secretary of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs has been tapped to lead the Massachusetts office of AARP, the state’s largest advocacy organization for older people.

AARP announced Thursday that Michael E. Festa, 58, a longtime Melrose lawyer and resident, will take over as director on Tuesday.

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Festa said in a phone interview that one of his top priorities will be to make sure the voices of 800,000 Massachusetts members are heard in Washington, particularly on the issue of protecting the future of Social Security. AARP figures show that Social Security accounts for 56 percent of the typical older Massachusetts resident’s income.

“The truth is, there are a lot of seniors living in poverty, on the margins,” Festa said. “If they have pensions, they are very modest, and if they have savings, a lot of it is being eaten up by medical co-payments.”

Festa said another priority will be to advocate in Massachusetts for more funding for home-based care for seniors, a state program that provides services to eligible elderly people who need help to continue living independently in their homes.

The program has faced chronic funding gaps, leading to what’s become known as the Home Care Wait List, with more than 1,000 seniors across the state eligible but unable to get the services.

“We believe very strongly that the time for ending those waiting lists are long past,” said Festa, who noted that his maiden speech as a state representative in 1999 was advocating for more money for the home care program.

Festa served in the state House nearly nine years, before stepping down to take the Elder Affairs post in 2007. While a representative, Festa championed the Equal Choice bill, later signed into law, which allows disabled seniors a choice of receiving the same amount of state subsidy for care at home as they would receive in a nursing home

At Elder Affairs, he focused on expanding senior employment and civic engagement opportunities as well as increased access to resources and services for abused elders.

When he resigned from the post in January 2009, amid a deepening recession and significant cuts to elder services, advocates said that had it not been for Festa’s leadership, the cuts would have been deeper.

“He brought an energy to that office,” then-AARP Massachusetts director Deborah Banda said in a January 2009 Globe article. “He was out in the community ... and he made sure that the people who relied on these services had a voice at the table.”

“Mike is dedicated to helping people,” Linda Fitzgerald, AARP Massachusetts volunteer state president, said in a statement. “Throughout his career, he has worked to improve the lives of those who are vulnerable as well as seniors and persons with disabilities.”

After leaving state government, Festa served as president and chief executive of the Carroll Center for the Blind, until his resignation in 2011 over a dispute with the center’s board. He began his career as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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