August 01, 2015

The Older Americans Act: Seeking to Improve Lives

David M. Godfrey

(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: (Bifocal, Vol. 36, Issue 6).)

 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act (OAA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 3001 et seq. The goal of the OAA is to improve the lives of older Americans. The OAA was first passed in 1965 and has been periodically reauthorized over the decades.

Older Americans Act in Your Neighborhood
Senior centers are the most visible presence of OAA programs and services in your neighborhood. Senior centers are important gathering places, where people participate in educational, nutrition, social, and cultural programs, as well as in physical activities, health education, and health screenings. Senior centers connect people and programs and services at the local grassroots level. Senior centers vary widely in form and function, but all serve as community centers bringing together older adults and critical programs and services.

OAA Health and Wellness Programming
Under the theory that an ounce of prevention saves a pound of cure, the OAA promotes health and wellness by providing health education, screening, nutrition assistance, and chronic disease management assistance. Health education and screening empower older Americans to seek diagnosis and treatment at the right time for the right reasons. Health education includes helping people understand the differences between normal age-related changes and those caused by disease or illness that may be treatable or curable. Health screenings, such as blood pressure monitoring or blood sugar testing, help people spot changes so they can seek medical advice before a crisis occurs.

A frightening percentage of low-income older Americans are food-insecure, and senior centers provide low-cost meals and access to other nutrition assistance programs. The nutrition programs go far beyond senior centers, with low-cost “congregate” meals funded in part by the OAA available in a variety of faith- and community-based settings, and home-delivered meals most commonly known as “meals on wheels” being delivered to thousands of homebound people each day. For many homebound persons, the meals on wheels driver and the home healthcare worker made possible by OAA programs may be the primary contact with the outside world.

Caregiver Support Programs
The vast majority of long-term care is provided by friends and family in home and community-based settings. The OAA supports caregivers by providing access to training, advice, equipment, supplies, visits by trained home healthcare workers, and replacement caregivers (also known as respite care providers). These important services prevent or shorten millions of nursing home stays.

Many OAA programs also operate Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRC) as part of a “no wrong door” concept to help connect older adults and adults with disabilities with important programs and services. ADRCs are staffed by information and referral specialists trained to help identify and solve problems to empower people to remain in the community.

Protecting the Most Vulnerable
The National Center on Elder Abuse, http://www.ncea.aoa.gov, is funded through the OAA and provides research, advice, and technical assistance on elder abuse prevention, detection, and intervention. The Elder Justice Act passed five years ago as part of the Affordable Care Act includes significant additions to elder abuse programing under the OAA.

The Long-Term Care Ombudsman (LTCO) program is part of the Older Americans Act. LTCOs provide important information, assistance, and advocacy for residents in long-term care settings. Ombudsmen are essential to empowering and providing a voice of advocacy for the most vulnerable members of a community.

National Centers of Expertise
The OAA creates national centers of expertise on over two dozen issues ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to women’s retirement, http://www.aoa.acl.gov. Important to the ABA is the National Legal Resource Center (NLRC)—the Association has been a part of the NLRC and its predecessor programs for over 25 years. As a part of the NLRC we provide training and expert advice on elder abuse, advance planning, supported decision making, and guardianship, and maintain content on the NLRC website. The NLRC, http://nlrc.acl.gov, offers guidance to programs providing important legal assistance to low-income and at-risk seniors in every community. Modest funding for legal assistance for at risk seniors is provided through the Older Americans Act.

State and Regional Agencies
The majority of funding for OAA programs flows from the federal to the state level and from there to the local level. All states have a state-level office on aging; most states have regional programs known as Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs). State and local government have a meaningful (but not unlimited) flexibility in designing OAA programs and spending resources to meet the most important needs in the local community.

Touching the Lives of Every Older American
Older Americans Act programs and services touch the lives of every older American in one way or another. Some impact is direct while other impact is indirect, but everyone’s life is touched by important OAA programs and services. ■

David M. Godfrey

David M. Godfrey is a Senior Attorney at the ABA Commission on Law and Aging in Washington, DC.

Published in Experience, Volume 25, Number 2, 2015. © 2015 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.