Longtime Democrat Edith Prague has reluctantly retired as the state’s commissioner on aging, marking the end of a career of more than 30 years in state government in which she fought for the elderly as a legislator and commissioner under two governors.
Prague, 88, has not returned to work since suffering a mini-stroke in mid-February that forced her to spend three weeks in Windham Hospital. As feisty as ever, she said in an interview Tuesday that she is not happy about not returning to work – having officially stepped down as commissioner as of June 1.
“I was very sick this past winter, and I cannot go back fulltime,’’ Prague told The Hartford Courant on Tuesday. “My only choice is to retire or drop dead. I have to retire. Believe me, I don’t like it. That’s my baby – that department. … Lots of people look forward to retirement, but I’m not one of them.’’
She added, “My daughter and my doctor won’t let me go back fulltime, but I certainly could do part-time work. … It took me a long time to get back on my feet, but I am now back on my feet.’’
After the mini-stroke, Prague said she developed a urinary tract infection that became a bloodstream infection. Weakened, she had a hospital bed placed in her home and took 12 weeks off from work under federal law for medical leave. But she had rebounded enough to be working in her backyard Tuesday when she was reached on her cellphone.
“Here I am – out in my garden, doing what retired people do,’’ Prague said. “I don’t like it one single bit.’’
She said she could not be a part-time commissioner in the newly re-created aging department that had been previously folded into the Department of Social Services for two decades. As the oldest commissioner in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration and one of the oldest in the country, Prague had been earning $120,000 per year while fighting for senior citizens in much the same way that she did as a state legislator.
“It really needs someone fulltime [as commissioner],’’ Prague said. “I’d be cheating the department. … There are no part-time commissioner jobs. I’m really very sad about it – to tell you the truth.’’
Prague said she had not spoken to Malloy, who nominated her for the job last year, but said that one of her daughters, Joanne Prague Doyle, had been in contact with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.
“I haven’t gotten a call from the governor, but the lieutenant governor is good enough for me,’’ Prague said.
Malloy’s spokesman, Andrew Doba, said, “The governor was proud to appoint Edith as commissioner. She served with honor and compassion and brought tremendous energy to the job. Her passion for advocacy on behalf of Connecticut’s seniors served this administration and the state immeasurably well.’’
Following her own health battles with a minor stroke on Christmas Day 2011 and then a freak accident in which she broke her pelvis in three places after being attacked by an unleashed dog at a local running track at the age of 87, Prague said she considered herself lucky to become the commissioner.
Prague had been supervising 31 employees and an annual budget of $25 million in a department that oversees the full gamut of senior citizen issues, including Medicare, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Meals on Wheels, health insurance counseling and home care. Although other agencies actually spend the money for high-priced programs like Medicaid for nursing homes, Prague’s agency was essentially an umbrella organization and a clearinghouse to advocate for the needs of senior citizens.
For years, Prague knew that she could be sitting on a beach somewhere, reading a book in retirement. But her fiery passion for helping the elderly had prompted her to commute 46 miles round-trip daily to the commissioner’s office in Hartford from her longtime home on Columbia Lake in Tolland County.
Back on her feet Tuesday after months of recovery, Prague said, “I always say to the seniors – if you have your health, you have everything.’’
In her retirement, Prague says she will visit senior centers around the state at least once per month and help the elderly to figure out the complexities of their Medicare insurance.
Earlier this week, Prague said she did something she never does. She was invited by former state senator Mary Ann Handley, a fellow Democrat, to go to lunch.
“That’s what retired people do – go to lunch,’’ Prague said. “I have to learn this new way of life.’’