By Bob Blancato, Next Avenue Contributor
Last week, the House of Representatives joined the Senate in giving final approval to a five-year renewal of the programs and services of the Older Americans Act (OAA). This represented a strong bipartisan reaffirmation of the value of the law to maintaining the independence of people 60 and older. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the legislation soon.
Why should you care? For one thing, the Older Americans Act’s efforts assist 11 million people each year all around the country, with services ranging from congregate and home-delivered meals to transportation services to elder abuse prevention to part-time employment. For another, the new legislation will provide new initiatives — and continue current ones — helpful to family caregivers, people with early-onset Alzheimer’s and low-income older Americans, among others.
The bill’s two main highlights: reauthorizing the Older Americans Act for five years and providing a 35% increase in funding over that time period. It also reaffirms that this law addresses two growing societal challenges: 1) social determinants of health (economic and social conditions influencing difference is health status) and 2) social isolation and loneliness.
One program that addresses social isolation is the Older American Act’s congregate nutrition program. By law, it must provide participants with a meal, nutrition education and a socialization opportunity (although the coronavirus pandemic will alter this, as explained below).
I’ve worked on a grant program with the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs, funded by the RRF Foundation for Aging, which studied the value of socialization. It found than 90% of older adults surveyed said the main reason they participate in the program was for socialization.
The Older American Act’s reauthorization would bolster efforts in this area by directing the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging to develop a long-term plan for supporting state and local efforts to combat social isolation, involving screening for social isolation as well as education on preventing and responding to negative health effects associated with social isolation.
For caregivers, The Older Americans Act legislation will: provide new grants to home care workers; continue funding the 2018 RAISE Family Caregivers Act for another year (as Next Avenue explained, that law helps relatives and partners who provide medical assistance to loved ones); and, for the first time, provide caregiver and long-term care services to those with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
On the nutritional front, the bill addresses two other trending issues for older adults. It takes into account cultural considerations and medically tailored meals for the federal nutrition program and the legislation provides screening for malnutrition for the first time.
Before the bill passed, evaluations of some existing Older Americans Act programs demonstrated their significant value to beneficiaries.
For example, 61% of home-delivered meal participants said they’d skip meals or eat less in the absence of these programs. And a review of the law’s National Family Caregiver Support Program found that its caregiver services reduce caregiver burden as well as help family caregivers continue in their role for longer.
The only real shortcoming of the Older Americans Act is inadequate funding.
It received just 1.1% a year, on average, in federal money from FY 2001 to 2019. The nutrition programs have fared slightly better, but when adjusted for inflation, total funding appropriated for Older American Act nutrition services during those years actually fell by 8%.
The Older Americans Act reauthorization wouldn’t have happened without the bipartisan leadership of Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), chair of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the law; Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairs of the committee with jurisdiction, and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), all of whom played a pivotal role in the Senate.
A very recent demonstration of the day-to-day importance of the Older Americans Act just occurred last week.
In the early hours of March 14, the House passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which included $250 million in emergency funds for the senior nutrition programs of the Older Americans Act. It responded to expected major changes in the operations of senior nutrition programs due to the pandemic. Many thousands of congregate recipients will likely become home-delivered recipients for an undetermined length of time.
Further, this funding will help meet the growing demand for providing shelf-stable meals and congregate meals in alternate ways, such as “grab and go” options.
The Senate is expected to pass the bill with these funds later this week and the President has signaled his support.
Paul Downey, co-chair of the American Society on Aging’s public policy committee, said: “It is gratifying that in these uncertain political times one thing that both Republicans and Democrats agree on is the importance of passing the Older Americans Act. It is critical to the health and well-being of millions of older adults in the United States.”
By Bob Blancato, Next Avenue Contributor