Politics Matter: An Update on the Older Americans Act

To what extent should we be discussing politics at this blog? After all, we’re seniors. We’ve heard it all before, and what difference has any of it made? At this point in our lives, we should be focusing on ourselves, particularly on our health, our finances, and our loved ones.

This line of reasoning has its appeal, particularly when we’re feeling a little grumpy. But accepting it would be a mistake. We have to take an interest in politics if we’re going to protect Social Security, Medicare, and all the other government programs that have an impact on our lives.

That’s why I’m bothered by the nearly complete lack of attention being given by the media and our national leaders to the June 10 update on the Older Americans Act issued by the Government Accountability Office. Among the presidential candidates, only Senator Bernie Sanders appears to have mentioned it — and he’s the Senator who requested the study.

The update merits attention because the near freeze on OAA funding in recent years is creating a crisis for millions of America’s seniors. It’s also forcing state and local agencies to scramble to find funds for those most in need.

The most important part of the OAA  is Title III, which helps seniors, particularly lower income seniors, age in place. This is something seniors dearly want. AARP has just reminded us that 78 per cent of mid-life and senior adults want to stay in their current homes as long as possible.

Title III helps make aging in place possible by funding meals (either delivered at home or in group settings), home care, adult day care, transportation, and family caregiver support. Without these services, seniors can find themselves forced to go into nursing homes, where the cost of care can quickly exhaust their savings.  When this happens, seniors have to enroll in Medicaid in order to continue to receive care. Taxpayers end up footing the bill, at far greater cost than if a senior had been able to remain at home.

The number of older Americans is growing as the baby boom generation ages. There were nearly 63 million over the age of 60 in 2013, as compared with 55.5 million in 2009. But OAA appropriations are stagnant. Funding was just $1.88 billion in 2014, as compared with $1.8 billion in 2004.

The GAO found that 83 per cent of seniors who are food insecure are not receiving meals through OAA-supported programs. These are people who report such conditions as skipping meals because they do not have enough money to buy food. Two-thirds of Americans over 60 who have difficulties with the daily activities of living, such as bathing, dressing, and toileting, are receiving limited home-based care or none at all.

The GAO notes that part of the problem may be that some older adults are not aware of the existence of programs that could help them. But the agency also reported that “Officials from several state agencies stressed that the need for home-delivered meals is greater than the level of services they are able to fund.”

After President Obama was first elected in 2008, at a time when Democrats controlled Congress, OAA funding rose sharply. But once Republicans took back control of the House in 2010, OAA appropriations began their decline to 2004 levels. Now that Republicans control both the House and Senate, there’s no telling what the future may hold.

That’s why politics matter.

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