Older people already have plenty to worry about: The physical and mental wages of aging alone can be harrowing. Add poverty — or very limited resources — and you have a witches’ brew of adversity.
Older people should not have to worry about whether Congress will allow a vital benefit that helps them continue to live independently to expire.
And yet they must, because Congress has failed to reauthorize the Older Americans Act, which expired in 201 and survives only through ad hoc continuing resolutions. The act was passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. It has for decades provided home- and community-based services for many millions of older Americans.
The OAA is “the major vehicle for the organization and delivery of social and nutrition services. … It authorizes a wide array of service programs through a national network” of agencies, the Administration on Aging says.
Funds from the OAA flow through the Arizona Department of Economic Security to the state’s eight area agencies for the aging, including the Pima Council on Aging. The PCOA helps seniors continue to live independently by providing support like home-delivered meals, assistance with a bath, laundry, cleaning their house, changing their bedsheets, basic home repairs and much more.
We support renewing the OAA. You should, too. The programs it subsidizes are invaluable, and we need more of them, not fewer.
The PCOA’s “Report to the Community,” published last spring, ranks the needs and fears of older people in Pima County, based on surveying professionals in the care community, residents 60 and older and feedback at community meetings.
(Let’s pause here, in case you’re thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me.” If you have older relatives, you may well become a caregiver for them at some time in the future. Further, the people we are talking about are over 60. For baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, this means you, or soon will: About 10,000 of you will turn 65 today; another 10,000 will reach that milestone tomorrow — and this will continue for the next 18 years. So listen up.)
Consider just two of the issues that the PCOA found worry older Pima County residents the most.
- The No. 1 “serious problem” for our neighbors over 60 is affordable dental care, PCOA reports. The majority of older people have no dental insurance. It’s not included in Medicare, which they can begin to use at 65. They must either buy a supplemental insurance program for dental care or pay as they go. Many cannot pay and thus do not get care.
We’re talking about oral health care, not cosmetics. The report notes that people over 65 are much more likely to get periodontal infections, more likely to have oral and pharyngeal cancers and are more at risk for losing teeth. Their medications may reduce salivation, which contributes to increased dental decay.
PCOA helps give older people who are not actually “poor” but who have very limited means access to dental care programs that normally are available only to those who meet poverty guidelines, says PCOA’s Adina Wingate.
But as the report notes, “subsidized assistance for dental care is very limited in Pima County,” and the organization is working toward reforms to improve coverage.
- Transportation is a huge issue. In most cases, older people eventually must stop driving themselves — assuming they can afford to buy, register, insure and keep up a vehicle at all. That’s part one. Part two is that for many of them public transportation, even including its supplemental programs and options designed to help the elderly and disabled, falls short. They can’t afford it. Or they can’t walk to the bus stops, especially with groceries. Or they live in distant suburbs or rural neighborhoods where services aren’t provided.
“More than 50 percent of nondrivers 65 or older stay home on any given day partially because they lack transportation options,” the report says. For some, just getting from their residence to the community mailbox is a challenge. Getting to the doctor or the grocery or out to visit with friends? Impossible.
PCOA works with volunteers in the Neighbors Care Alliance, more than 20 groups that have organized to provide help to those who need it in their neighborhoods. A lift is at the top on many older people’s list. An extra benefit, along with the fact that the ride is free, is that the contact with a neighborhood volunteer helps reduce the debilitating social isolation that so often creeps in along with age.
PCOA also is working with regional planners, the county and localities to encourage investment and planning to make more accessible and, especially, affordable transportation available, Wingate says.
You can help, too. Get in touch with your congressman and senators, and tell them Congress must reauthorize the OAA.