WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Older Americans Act, under which millions of Americans have enjoyed services in nutrition, health and employment, turned 50 on July 14 with little fanfare.
The programs funded under the act — such as Meals on Wheels, senior centers, health screenings, adult day care, respite services, transportation services, elder abuse prevention and a long-term care ombudsman program — have become a part of the everyday lives of millions of seniors.
About 11 million seniors, one-fifth of the country’s senior population, receive services through an Older Americans Act-funded program.
From 2008 to 2012, the act provided more than 130 million rides to doctors’ offices and other places; more than 1 billion meals; more than 60 million hours of homemaker services; nearly 20 million hours of case management; more than 30 million hours of respite care, nearly 248 million hours of community service, and more than 1.5 million individual consultations to long-term care residents and their families, statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living show.
Such programs allow older Americans — those 60 and older — to remain independent later into life, saving billions of dollars in institutionalization and hospitalization costs.
Despite the success of the programs that are largely funded through area agencies on aging, reauthorization of the act and the $2 billion it provides for senior services is not assured.
The Senate passed the Older Americans Act Reauthorization Act by voice vote July 16 after months of delay. The 71 members of the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations had been urging senators to pass the reauthorization bill since January.
The Older Americans Act was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. The law was enacted in response to policymakers’ concerns about the lack of community social services for older people.
The law established the Administration on Aging, now under the Administration for Community Living. Senior services are administered through 56 state agencies on aging, 629 area agencies on aging, nearly 20,000 service providers, 244 tribal organizations and two native Hawaiian organizations.
Until 2011, the law had been reauthorized every few years. Since it expired four years ago it has plodded along without a full reauthorization. That is what has concerned providers of senior services providers; some privately wonder if the Senate vote occurred only because the anniversary came and went.
The reality is that the law has few champions in Congress or the White House in an era when discretionary spending on domestic programs has taken a hit in an effort to cap spending and reduce the federal budget deficit.
“The Older Americans Act programs are so important,” said Diane Lifsey, senior legislative representative at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a leadership council member. “They can be leveraged in communities to be coupled with other programs to help people at home and give caregivers a little respite so they can continue doing their caregiving.”
In meetings with members of Congress, Lifsey and other senior advocates have pushed for increased funding because the senior population is growing, making it difficult for local agencies to meet expanding needs.
The population of people 65 and older jumped nearly 25 percent from 35.9 million in 2003 to 44.7 million in 2013 and is projected to more than double to 98 million in 2060, according to Census Bureau data.
Consideration of the reauthorization bill in the House of Representatives will occur, but it will be in the middle of the appropriations debate after the August recess.
Among the programs funded under the law are dozens of elder services programs operated by Catholic agencies around the country. They include four senior community centers of the Catholic Health Care Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Summit Adult Day Services in Akron, Ohio, under Catholic Charities of the Cleveland Diocese.
Shirley Weaver, director of community-based services for seniors in the Philadelphia program, told Catholic News Service that the centers benefit from $1.2 million in funds under the law. Funding for the program had been frozen for seven years until 2014-2015 when the local agency on aging received a modest increase in allocations, providing the centers with a 2 percent increase for the fiscal year that ended June 30, she said.
For the current fiscal year, funding remains a question mark until the reauthorization passes and the federal appropriation is set.
Two of the Philadelphia centers serve African-Americans while the other two serve Polish and Chinese immigrants, respectively. The centers offer older adults a place to go so they are less isolated. Participants are served breakfast and lunch with 58,221 lunches being funded by the law’s appropriations in fiscal year 2015. They also take advantage of health and wellness services that detect illnesses early and monitor chronic conditions.
“Over 50 percent of our seniors live at or below the poverty line,” Weaver said.
“Without the funding from the Older American Act, where would these seniors go? How would they get access to services? How would they know what services are available to them? Who would determine whether or not they are getting ill?” she asked.
“What we need to understand is that the population of seniors is exploding,” Weaver added. “Look at it from a funding perspective. How can you care for more seniors if you have flat funding?”
In Akron, Jim Mazzagatti, director of Summit Adult Day Services, told CNS the program provides some of the same services as well as nursing care, medication distribution, personal care and follow up for older adults, allowing seniors to remain in their homes or to live with family members rather than a nursing home.
The 70 to 80 seniors who participate in the program daily might not be able to afford being part of it without the funding the agency receives through the Akron Canton Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities, he said.
“We support older adults to receive the services they need to remain in their own home in the community. We like to say ‘aging in place.’ These dollars help us do that.” Mazzagatti said.
Such Catholic-sponsored services represent just some of the thousands of programs nationwide whose participants benefit from Older American Act funding. It’s now up to Congress to decide how those programs — and people — fare.