Pennsylvania Lottery pays off for state's senior citizens
Darlene Henderson has played the daily Pick 4 off and on since the 1980s, though she hasn't won a substantial jackpot.
Her payoff from the Pennsylvania Lottery comes from the more than $1 billion raised annually for senior programs and services statewide.
“From the beginning, they always said it was to help senior citizens,” said Henderson, 67, of East Liberty. “That's a good cause.”
Since its first drawing in 1972, Pennsylvania's lottery has contributed nearly $25 billion to senior programs for low-cost prescription drugs, free and reduced-fare transportation, rebates on property taxes and rent, long-term care services and senior centers — including Vintage, the North Highland Avenue center where Henderson has been a member for three years.
The lottery has raised more than $1 billion for such programs for four consecutive years. During the 2014-15 fiscal year, the lottery contributed $1.06 billion from a record $3.82 billion in sales.
Prizes accounted for $2.4 billion, with $203 million paid in retailer commissions and $76 million spent on administrative costs.
It is on pace to continue that streak, lottery spokesman Gary Miller said.
“We're aiming for another billion dollars,” he said. “But a billion dollars only goes so far.”
Programs in Allegheny County received $144.4 million in lottery money in 2014-15, and nearly $40 million went to Westmoreland County, according to an Economic and Benefit Impact Report released this month.
Money is distributed through a formula based on population and need through the state departments of Aging, Transportation and Revenue, as well as the Office of Long-Term Living.
Though the lottery doesn't provide the services, lottery officials know the importance of the money games raise, Miller said.
“The need to generate funding to benefit older Pennsylvanians is constantly on our minds,” he said. “We recognize that these services make a big difference in the lives of older adults.”
Allegheny County's Area Agency on Aging received $33 million from the lottery last year to put toward its $49 million budget, administrator Mildred Morrison said.
That money helped 44,000 of the county's 270,000 people who are 60 or older, she said. Other funding comes from Medicaid and a $500,000 county grant.
“You do this because you care,” said Morrison, a former banker who has worked for the agency for 16 years. “You bring what you've got and do the best you can.”
Of the lottery money the agency received last year, $7 million helped fund more than 40 senior centers in the county, and $2 million covered older-adult protective services, which includes guardianship and investigations of elder abuse.
The largest portion — $20 million — went toward care services such as social work, housekeeping and personal assistance, such as bathing and dressing.
“This helps families and helps seniors maintain some independence,” Morrison said. “It's important for human dignity. It's important for quality of life, and it is far more affordable for the public to allow those people to remain at home compared to institutional care.”
In-home services can cost as much as $5,000 a year per person, but nursing home costs can be $60,000 to $80,000 a year, Morrison said.
“There are moral reasons why we are here, and there are economic principles,” she said.
The Area Agency on Aging paid for supplies and an aide for three years to help care for Gwen Allan's husband, Robert, in their New Kensington home. The aide eventually visited seven days a week.
“It helped keep him from going to a nursing home,” Gwen Allan said.
Allan's husband played the lottery regularly before he died in 2004.
“I knew some of the money might have been (going to seniors),” said Allan, 70, who now lives in Springdale. “That's why I didn't mind him playing $20 a week on the lottery. ... No, it was more than that.”
Nearly three years ago, Allan joined the Oakmont senior center, which is run by Riverview Community Action Corporation. She is a member of the “Happy Hookers,” a knitting group that makes items for veterans and hospital patients.
Lottery money helps fund the centers, but it doesn't cover all costs, said RCAC executive director Stefanie Woolford. About half of the center's $240,000 budget come from lottery proceeds, with the rest coming from fees, fundraisers and donations.
“There is not this stream of constant lottery money that comes through,” Woolford said.
The center averages more than 50 people a day and offers programming that includes the ubiquitous and popular bingo, as well as classes in Spanish, yoga, meditation and tai chi, and trips to Pittsburgh's Cultural District, restaurants and shopping destinations.
“What we are finding is that we are getting younger seniors and they want different activities,” said program coordinator Lynn Verratti.
The same is true at Vintage, said Tom Sturgill, program director of the East Liberty center.
The Familylinks affiliate offers its 600 members nearly three dozen programs, ranging from chess and computer classes to a drama, cards, arts and crafts and a lecture series. Members also have access to a fitness center and exercise classes.
“It shatters your stereotype of aging,” Sturgill said.
Henderson started visiting Vintage in 2013 after retiring as a school-crossing guard and battling thyroid cancer.
“I was always an upbeat person, but three years ago I was at my low,” Henderson said. “I found myself getting real depressed. Vintage helped me get back to where I used to be.”
Now, she volunteers at the center's cafe and on its senior advisory board. Three days a week, she joins a couple dozen other members for two hours of line dancing.
“I thought I could dance back in the day,” joked Henderson, who wore silver sneakers to class last week. “I'm proud to say I can kind of keep up.”
Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.