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At 87. Commissioner Prague says you are never too old to work hard

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published June 30. 2013 4:00AM

I believe Edith Prague, the state's new 87-year-old commissioner on aging, when she says she will know when it's time to retire. And right now, that's not anytime soon.

I spent part of a day with Prague last week to see how one of eastern Connecticut's most prominent senators from the last two decades is making out in her new job as head of the state's new Department of Aging.

Before we parted company, I asked her about the grumblings I heard after Gov. Dannel Malloy nominated her for the job, complaints that she is too old.

Of course she had heard those complaints too, often from people who said the appointment was just a lucrative political payback.

"You are never too old as long as you are well and you are willing to work hard and you are committed," Prague, feisty as ever, told me, adding she will know best herself when she needs to leave.

"When I become aware that I can't do the job I will be the first to admit it," she said. "And you can make darned sure I will get someone to replace me who can do the job."

Indeed, Prague is especially well suited to head the new agency.

She was actually the commissioner on aging back in the day when Lowell Weicker, the Republican renegade, was governor. When Weicker made a move to combine the department with the Department of Social Services, Prague refused.

Weicker fired her. That was in 1992. Two years later, she ran for the Senate seat she kept for 18 years, earning a reputation as a stalwart liberal defender of unions, the needy and seniors.

Prague says she believes it was her efforts that led to success in having the Department of Aging reconstituted as a separate state agency.

When I asked about Malloy's invitation to nominate her as the new commissioner, she suggested that was her idea, too, "dropping a few hints around."

She now calls herself the "recycled" commissioner.

She will be an effective commissioner in part, she says, "because it takes a senior to know what a senior needs." Her long time in the legislature will serve her well, because she knows who to call to get things done.

The state needs a Department of Aging now, the commissioner says, because the state's elderly population, more than 600,000 strong, is the fastest growing group in the state.

"We are going to do great things," she said, putting at the top of her agenda transportation initiatives to help the elderly get around better in the many rural areas of the state.

Prague didn't run for reelection to her Senate seat after she suffered a mini stroke on Christmas Day 2011. She said her daughters and doctor persuaded her not to return to the rigors of campaigning, especially in a district that had been slightly reconfigured.

But she said she would run again now, if she were not commissioner.

She was originally scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 8, but on Jan. 4, while walking her dog, she was knocked down by a large boxer. She ended up with a broken pelvis, spending six weeks in a rehabilitation center.

She was eventually sworn in April 19.

"It was hard sitting at home," she said. "I can't do that."

Now she's back to work full time.

Part of the time I spent with Prague was during a visit she made to a health fair at a senior center in South Hartford. After losing track of her at one point I found her again in the middle of the room, pushing a senior in a wheelchair toward a nurse at a table.

Put that down as one of the primary jobs of the new commissioner on aging: inspiring the aged.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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