It’s been five years since the first baby boomers turned 65, and each day 10,000 more Americans reach that age.
It has also been five years since Congress allowed the Older Americans Act (OAA) to expire. A Senate bill to reauthorize the act passed the U.S. House in March.
As the population of older adults continues to increase and Americans live longer lives, our nation’s policies need to keep pace.
The growing need to have effective programs that help seniors live with dignity is why I recently took a lead role in helping the House improve and pass an updated Older Americans Act.
Originally a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the OAA funds programs that provide services to seniors in urban, suburban and rural communities throughout the country. The law supports nutritional and transportation services, in-home and legal assistance, protections against elder abuse and family caregiver support. Taken together, Older Americans Act programs make it possible for millions of older adults to remain independent and healthy, and to age with dignity in their homes and communities.
At home in Oregon, I have seen how OAA programs help seniors remain connected to their communities and avoid costlier long-term care. Many homebound seniors receive their only hot meal of the day from programs like the OAA-funded Meals on Wheels, and the volunteers who deliver these meals may provide the only chance for social interaction. I’ve packaged and delivered meals to older adults and have seen how important that contact is, especially for those in isolated or rural areas.
Recently I joined hundreds of seniors to celebrate the reopening of the newly renovated Astoria Senior Center. This vibrant community hub, and others like it in my district, show the tremendous benefits of —and need for—social programs for our seniors.
The new and bipartisan Older Americans Act also increases funding for other programs to meet the growing need for supportive services. Importantly, this legislation takes several meaningful steps to combat elder abuse.
According to the Elder Justice Coalition, there are more than 6 million victims of elder abuse every year — roughly 1 in 10 people over age 60. Victims of elder financial abuse lose an estimated $2.9 billion a year, which sometimes includes their entire life savings. We should do all we can to make sure older adults are not robbed of their resources or denied the dignity they deserve.
But like any compromise, my colleagues and I made sacrifices in order to move this legislation closer to the finish line. We will need to continue to modernize OAA programs to reflect the increasing diversity among older adults, and in particular work to remove barriers that prevent older adults — including LGBT elders and older individuals from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds — from fully accessing the programs that keep them healthy and engaged in their communities.
The passage of the bill in the House is significant because it shows a bipartisan commitment to seniors by members of Congress, but we have a lot more to do. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to strengthen programs for older Americans in the future.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., has served in the House since 2012.