BENNINGTON -- An increasingly older population and downsized federal funding have many seniors in our area preparing to face another winter with uncertainty.

Nutrition, dental care, heating and transportation shortfalls concerning the elderly were discussed at a recently held Bennington County legislative forum.

Members of the House of Representatives, Brian Campion, Timothy Corcoran, Anne Mook, Bill Botzow, Alice Miller and Mary Morrissey along with Senator Dick Sears, gathered at the Second Congregational Church on Friday to discuss elder issues and gather input from the community.

The forum was hosted by the Community of Vermont Elders, along with the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging and the Bennington County Retired Teachers Association. The afternoon got off to an animated start, with "Dad's All Right," a skit by Kate O'Klein and Selma Milchen of Bennington, both retired teachers and members of COVE's Savvy Seniors, a group of volunteers who perform comic educational programs on issues that relate to consumers and specifically the elderly.

Routines by local senior actors discuss how to handle suspicious phone calls, telemarketing, fraud and last week, what to do if you think an elderly relative is being mistreated.

Led by Kelly McElheny, volunteer and outreach coordinator with COVE, other programs available include Medicare Bingo, Jeopardy, and "When Healing Hands Harm," about prescription diversion.

Local seniors in attendance spoke out in support of implementing a stronger transportation system within Bennington County.

"I think it would be helpful if we had some type of shuttle here, that went one day to Albany, one day to Brattleboro and maybe one day a week to Rutland," said a Bennington senior resident.

Another cited dental care as being a severe problem in the county, and suggested a federally qualified sliding-scale clinic as a viable option, as well as encouraging dentists in the area to offer their services to the elderly and those in need more frequently.

Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, in her 18th year as a member of the Legislature, is currently serving on the House Committee on Health Care and said much is on the table for discussion.

"A lot of what we're able to cover is affected by funding. We are trying, very hard to get some of these issues moving forward," said Morrissey, citing recent health care policy reform extensions, which now allow Vermonters to hold onto their current policies through March 31.

"In many cases there are services available," said Sandy Conrad, moderator and executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging. "It's just a matter of getting the awareness out."

Sen. Dick Sears cited a continual decline of federal funding as contributing to setbacks with necessary programs and said that "Washington as a whole is part of the problem."

"We're a small state with limited resources," said Sears. "What I'm hearing frustrates me."

Heating is another problem area for seniors, who often aren't able to generate any additional income during the colder months, and rely on social security funds to get them through winter.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in Vermont was recently awarded an additional $2.1 million in state funding under Gov. Shumlin, to offset federal cutbacks.

LIHEAP provides assistance paying for home heating to people of all ages whose household income does not exceed either 150 percent of the federal poverty level or 75 percent of their state's median income. Rep. Bill Botzow, who represents Woodford and Pownal, expressed his concerns with sustainable programming efforts and specifically allocating funds to help older residents insulate their homes.

"By and large, older people live in older houses," said Botzow, who said he supports LIHEAP. "We need to look at not just how we can spend our money on fuel, but how we can invest in greater energy efficiency."

Executive Director of COVE, Gini Milkey, said the goal for the fuel service program is to cover as much as 60 percent of the average qualifying heating bill. "That number is currently down to 30 percent," said Milkey. "We're pushing to introduce more sustainable programs."

Equally important is maintaining a healthy diet and helping seniors avoid hunger at all times of the year.

Seniors in attendance cited quality of life and mental health issues stemming from inadequate access to food and socialization.

"When we deliver our meals, many times that person who knocks on the door is the only contact they have for the day, or sometimes it's their only meal," said Susan Fox, executive director of the Bennington County Meals on Wheels program. Fox called the program "a nutritional lifeline," and said over 45,000 homecooked meals are served to elders in our area each year.

"In Rutland County last year we lost three elder meals centers," said Conrad. "As we see a decrease in food stamp funding, more people are having to turn elsewhere. But there's not funding for that either."

Although the Bennington Meals center serves just one meal per day, there is not a local United Way to provide necessary supplemental income, according to Fox.

"Over the last year we have seen the largest growth ever," said Fox, of the center which is in its 20th year. "We increased our meals by 10,000."

Fox said workers at the center are creative with funding efforts, holding events, sourcing grants and recruiting donations, but the suggested donation of $3.25 per meal is rarely given.

"People just can't afford it," she said.

COVE also sponsors the Vermont Senior Medicare Patrol, created to assist elders in preventing and resolving issues of Medicare fraud.

The group recommends treating health care information like you would a social security or credit card number, by being careful about who you share it with, properly disposing of bills and remembering to check your mailbox every day.

Scams, errors and fraud related to Medicare cost the federal government over $90 billion annually.

"At this time of year, seniors are being bombarded with calls and mailings about health care. Be on the lookout," said Rep. Alice Miller.

Founded in 1981, COVE is a nonprofit based in Montpelier whose mission is to promote a higher quality of life for Vermont's elders through education and advocacy.

For more information, assistance with elder issues, or to share an idea for our area contact COVE at 888-865-2683 or visit www.vermontelders.org.

Contact Khynna at kkuprian@benningtonbanner.com and follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.