The theme for this year’s Older Americans Month — “Age My Way” — presents a golden opportunity to ask: are seniors able to age the way they want to in the 21st century, and how can we help them achieve that goal? For many seniors, ‘aging my way’ means remaining in their homes and communities — or what is commonly referred to as ‘aging in place’ — a choice that preserves their dignity and independence. There is a growing consensus that aging in place is both mentally and physically healthier than institutional care. Among other benefits, it enables seniors to remain active members of — and contributors to — the communities where they live.
The issue as we mark Older Americans Month 2022 is whether there is sufficient infrastructure and funding to achieve this goal. Though seniors’ champions, such as Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) have been pushing to expand the nation’s in-home and community care capacity, the answer is still “No.” There currently are not sufficient resources to provide these services for every senior who wants or needs them.
This Older Americans Month, we call upon Congress to boost funding for Home and Community Based Services (HCBS), which are provided through the Medicaid program. Each state administers its own HCBS services (though they are optional at this point) and not all states have robust programs. There are long waiting lists for HCBS throughout the country. The demand clearly is there; it’s the funding (and political will) that’s lacking. The president’s original Build Back Better plan included an additional $400 billon for HCBS, which was later scaled back to $150 billion. Ultimately, the entire Build Back Better bill stalled when it could not garner sufficient votes in the Senate.
In addition to bolstering HCBS through Medicaid, lawmakers should expand the In-Home Support program under the Older Americans Act. This program also is underfunded and has long waiting lists for services. Again, every senior who needs long-term care but hopes to avoid living in a nursing home deserves the opportunity — and shouldn’t be turned down for a lack of federal funding.
Of course, seniors cannot receive care in their homes and communities without caregivers. The federal government should do whatever it can to support our nation’s caregivers — whether they are trained professionals or family members who find themselves caring for older loved ones. Professional caregivers are notoriously underpaid (earning an average of only $14.83 per hour), while many family members forgo paying jobs to provide care. Congress can and should provide more support for family and professional caregivers.
Rep. John Larson’s (D-Conn.) bill, Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, would provide family caretakers with caregiver credits, so that their future retirement benefits aren’t lowered from taking time out of the workforce. Meanwhile, the ill-fated Build Back Better legislation would have required states to sufficiently compensate HCBS providers to ensure that professional caregivers are properly trained and fairly paid. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare endorsed both the Build Back Better plan and Rep. Larson’s Social Security 2100 bill and urges Congress to enact these commonsense measures.
Of course, aging in place also requires access to proper nutrition. Not every senior who chooses to remain at home or in the community can afford groceries — especially with inflation raging. Fortunately, seniors can receive hot, healthy meals from Older Americans Act (OAA) nutrition programs funded by federal, state, and community grants. Meals on Wheels delivers nutritious food to seniors’ homes, providing not only sustenance but social interaction. The Congregate Meals program serves older adults in various community settings, offering healthy meals, social engagement, and access to vital resources.
Funding for these crucial programs has been inconsistent. Appropriations for OAA programs declined for more than a decade beginning in FY 2010, but rebounded during the pandemic to reach their highest level in the program’s history. But in FY 2022, the growth in funding slowed with a nominal boost of $28 million. It’s vital that, moving forward, senior nutrition and other Older Americans Act programs are adequately funded to meet current and future demand.
One way to ensure that seniors’ needs receive more attention on Capitol Hill would be to re-establish the House Select Committee on Aging, which was disbanded under the speakership of Newt Gingrich in 1995. While there are other committees with jurisdiction over seniors’ programs, there is no single committee dedicated to keeping an eye on the big picture for seniors. Last August, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) introduced a resolution (H. Res. 583) to bring back the House Select Committee on Aging. It is past time for this committee to be reestablished, with seniors representing a growing portion of the overall population. By 2030, nearly 75 million people in the U.S. — or 20 percent of the country — will be age 65 and older.
In recent weeks, some opinion-makers have argued that America is devoting too many resources to the elderly. One New York Times writer labeled the country a “gerontocracy” and declared that “the U.S. has long put a higher priority on taking care of the elderly than taking care of young families,” as if it were a zero-sum game. This devalues the important role that seniors play in our society while needlessly pitting the generations against each other. During the pandemic, many seniors provided daycare for their grandchildren or came out of retirement to serve their communities in health care and education roles, filling job vacancies in critical shortage areas.
Others have spent a lifetime working hard, contributing to society, and raising families. They are our parents, grandparents, friends, and neighbors. The least we can do is help them to ‘age their way’ in good health — with the dignity and respect that our elders deserve.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the nonprofit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He is former staff director at the Senate Special Committee on Aging.