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At 96, this advocate still fights on seniors’ behalf

Sally Hoyt with former president Jimmy Carter in 1979.
Sally Hoyt with former president Jimmy Carter in 1979.

To look at Sally Hoyt of Reading, a fashionably dressed 96-year-old, you might imagine her advice on living a long and productive life would run to platitudes like keeping a youthful mind-set or practicing daily gratitude.

Not so.

“Take your vitamins and any necessary prescribed medication,” she said in a no-nonsense tone when asked what counsel she has for her fellow seniors.

“Stay in your own home for as long as you can. Beware of scammers. Don’t buy anything from salesmen you don’t know until you’ve checked with your family. And if you don’t have family to ask for guidance, call your Council on Aging or an elder services agency.”

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After 25 years as Senate president for the Massachusetts Silver Legislature — an advisory group to lawmakers on issues facing senior citizens — advocacy for her aging peers is never far from Hoyt’s mind.

“When the Silver Legislature was formed in 1980, seniors were just beginning to live longer,” Hoyt said. “There was a need for legislation to improve their quality of life and protect them from various types of problems they were facing. At that time, there were very few laws protecting seniors.

The Silver Haired Legislature lost its state funding in 2011 — and consequently its office, equipment, and meeting space in the State House — but Hoyt and some of her colleagues have persisted nonetheless. They continue to lobby their local legislators and work with local councils on aging.

“Sally is just an unbelievable advocate,” said state Representative James Dwyer of Woburn. “When the Silver Haired Legislature lost its funding and was no longer an official State House entity, she continued with its work just as passionately as she had before. She is a rare kind of person who fights tirelessly to do the right thing.”

Hoyt was born and raised in Somerville in an era when few women aspired to politics. Pursuing a career in banking while raising three children made her something of a trailblazer even before she considered running for the Board of Selectman in Reading.

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And then a case of last-minute cold feet nearly prevented her from running.

“When I saw that I was running against five men, all of whom were business leaders in the community, I marched to Town Hall and told the clerk to withdraw my candidacy,” she recalled. “The town clerk told me I was too late; the ballot had already gone to print. And that’s how I got elected.”

Hoyt went on to serve four consecutive terms on the Board of Selectmen, from 1990 to 2001.

After Massachusetts followed the lead of Missouri, Florida, Texas, and a handful of other states by forming a Silver Haired Legislature, Hoyt’s name came up as a candidate. Initially elected to be a legislator for the group, representing the towns of Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, Lynnfield, Malden, and Melrose, she eventually assumed the title of Senate president.

Mike Festa, formerly secretary of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs and now state director of AARP Massachusetts, calls Hoyt “a legendary advocate” who has helped residents “age with dignity.”

As the population of seniors has grown over the decades, the issues facing them have changed, Hoyt said.

“Initially, our biggest concerns were the cost of prescription drugs and the lack of protection in place to keep seniors from being placed in nursing homes against their will,” she said.

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More recently, Hoyt has been crusading to prevent passage of a bill that included an immunity clause protecting guardians of the elderly from prosecution.

Other topics that the Silver Haired Legislature has long targeted include providing affordable housing, home health care services, and access to affordable long-term care.

In Hoyt’s view, the most critical issues facing seniors today include preventing the privatization of Social Security; protecting seniors from scammers, both in person and online; and protecting seniors from abusive guardianship situations.

Most of all, Hoyt wants her fellow seniors to recognize that help is available if they feel they are being mistreated or taken advantage of.

“The more awareness we can build for seniors about the help available to them, the better.”


Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.