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Strengthening the Older Americans Act: A Lifeline for Seniors

Since being signed into law in 1965, the Older Americans Act has served as a lifeline for millions of seniors through programs that promote nutrition, support caregivers, offer employment opportunities, and prevent abuse and neglect. 


This landmark legislation represented a vision well ahead of its time, and it is critical for Congress to reauthorize it before it expires at the end of September.  That is why I am leading the bipartisan effort to reauthorize this law to ensure that it continues to match the goals we set to permit seniors to age with dignity, respect, and community.


The Older Americans Act focuses on the well-being and social needs of our seniors.  Providing nutritious food, installing grab-bars, and giving rides cost far less than taking pills, undergoing surgeries, and moving to nursing homes.  In Maine, the average cost of serving one senior Meals on Wheels is $1,854 for an entire year.  By contrast, a single day in a hospital is $2,262, on average, and just 10 days in a nursing home is approximately $3,100.  Helping seniors to maintain their health at home is efficient, cost-effective, and compassionate.


As Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, my chief goal is to reauthorize a robust and bipartisan Older Americans Act that will strengthen support for its bread and butter programs, while providing more flexibility for states to meet local needs.  I have focused on five priority areas as we draft our bill: family caregivers, nutrition, social isolation, transportation, and elder justice.


Last year, the National Family Caregiver Support Program served more than 700,000 caregivers.  But with 10,000 Americans turning 65 each day, this program has not kept pace with our changing demographics.  I am working with my colleagues to increase the funding authorization.  We are also proposing to increase flexibility for states to better meet the needs of older adults in their communities, from those caring for their fellow seniors to those caring for their grandchildren.


Last year, through home-delivered nutrition programs, the Older Americans Act provided seniors across this country with 358 million meals.  That includes meals to 4,600 Maine seniors.  In many states, however, the need for Meals on Wheels is growing.  In Maine, there is a chronic waitlist of 400 to 1,500 people, depending on the time of year.  Increasing funding for this critical program and providing more flexibility to close the gap are among my priorities.


I am also focusing on new policies specifically geared toward reducing social isolation.  One such solution is transportation to help seniors get to more community activities.  What works in one place is different from what works in another – so I am building on a grant program that ranges from supporting public transit to on-demand and volunteer-based services for seniors.  These tools are vital to ensuring that seniors—particularly in rural areas—are able to reach the doctor, the grocery store, and family and friends more easily. 


Finally, at the core of the Older Americans Act is respect for our seniors, and preventing neglect, exploitation, and abuse.  States are spearheading initiatives to raise awareness, to train law enforcement officers and health care providers, and to support prevention efforts. 


Elder abuse, however, remains far too prevalent.  In this year’s reauthorization, I am including a provision that would help to equip communities with the skills and resources they need to stem the tide of abuse.  This has been a major focus of our Committee.  Protecting seniors is a mark of a just society.


I recently chaired an Aging Committee hearing on the importance of reauthorizing the Older Americans Act, and one of our witnesses was Larry Gross, the Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging.  Mr. Gross explained how the myriad programs authorized by the Older Americans Act have been instrumental in his agency’s pioneering efforts to support both rural and urban seniors in innovative ways.  During his more than 41 years of serving Maine seniors, Mr. Gross said he has seen the Older Americans Act “evolve to become a solid foundation for the future of aging services in this nation.”


The Older Americans Act is a shining example of a federal policy that works.  Every $1 invested in its programs generates $3 to help seniors stay at home through low-cost, community-based services.  By enriching the lives of seniors, the Older Americans Act improves the lives of all Americans.