The aging baby boomer population is driving the need for change in American political policy.
We are preparing for an unprecedented demographic shift in human history. Like most other industrialized nations, the U.S. is an aging country. Today, there are more than 40 million people ages 65 and older; this number is expected to steadily increase. By 2030, it’s estimated that the population of this age group will rise to nearly 75 million.
As a result, policymakers are faced with several issues that an aging society presents such as challenges to health care, retirement and social benefit programs that improve the lives of older adults. Addressing these challenges entails finding ways to contain the cost and scope of government as well as re-examining the role of government, as it relates to social welfare. Additionally, policymakers are tasked with finding ways to build policy solutions that are broad and good for all ages — not just older adults.
A Foundation of Care for Seniors
Age-related policies and programs have long been a part of social policy in the U.S. Public policy related to older age started with the implementation of Social Security in 1935. We then passed the Older Americans Act in 1965 and Medicare in 1966. These policies ensure that older adults receive needed aging-related services and health care. Historically, older adults have benefited greatly from the entitlements and expenditures of the age-related programs and policies. Americans are comfortable with social policies that benefit and protect older adults; much of this has to do with political ideology and societal values.
Given this reality, many gerontologists and experts in the field of aging are puzzled by the lack of meaningful conversation and action in the recent election cycle. As a result, experts are worried about what will happen to our long-standing programs such as Social Security, Medicare and the Older Americans Act as the aging population increases.
While Medicare and Social Security were briefly alluded to on the campaign trail, lacking was a meaningful discussion on proposed changes that would improve or safeguard the programs. Fast forward to today: The election is over, and the new administration is firmly in place. Now more than ever, we need to ensure existing programs remain intact such as ones that promote health and disease prevention, senior nutrition programs, senior centers, caregiver support and more. Early indicators point to future cuts in such programs.
A Blueprint for the Booming Future
Leading experts in the field of aging are encouraging policymakers to consider several key areas as they plan to address issues regarding aging. They include the aging network, which was created by the Older Americans Act. They also encourage reviewing the realities of low-income elders and how they would be impacted by potential changes to Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and how changes will impact long-term care and issues related to work and retirement.
In a recent interview, Bob Blancato, president of an influential public policy and strategy consulting firm, and current board chair of the American Society on Aging, indicated that social policies in America need to be better aligned with “realities of an aging society, with policies that promote opportunities while also addressing real challenges.”
More people living longer provide a benefit to society; this can be seen as opportunity. Related challenges invite us to think about how we can support healthy aging. We can start by creating policies and programs that help people age optimally such as community-based and safe walking programs. Also needed are programs that offset isolation and provide opportunities for older adults to contribute such as Experience Corps, an intergenerational, volunteer-based tutoring program that engages adults ages 50 and older.
Senior Social Issues We Must Face and Fix
Many older adults wish to age in place, which means remaining in the same community but taking advantage of the additional health care provided at the community if needed. As people live longer and healthier in greater numbers, all communities will need to adapt to aging. The importance of creating and supporting age-friendly
communities, or communities where elected leadership has made a deliberate effort to influence their physical and social environments in a manner that benefits older adults, is important.
Age-friendly communities focus on the community as a whole, rather than individual services that benefit older adults, which is typically how federal programs for older adults work. Experts in aging recognize that age-friendly communities can bolster older adults’ health and well-being and prevent or delay the onset of disease and disability. From a policy perspective, we need broad-based support and federal programming to help communities become and remain age-friendly.
Financial fraud as a form of elder abuse is becoming increasingly common and as a result is now a major problem in the U.S. Elder financial exploitation makes older adults and their families vulnerable, it varies in type and extent and is challenging to define with a single comprehensive definition. Experts at MetLife have described elder financial abuse as any type of unauthorized use of funds or the illegal taking of resources or property of people over the age of 60.
In the “Broken Trust: Elders, Families and Finances” study, MetLife reported that one million elders lose about $2.6 billion each year in the U.S. Granted, the Elder Justice Act provides dedicated resources to Adult Protective Services, but only has approximately $10 million in funding. Experts argue that federal policies and funding should be appropriated accordingly.
Creating age-friendly communities and preventing elder abuse are just two issues to be addressed and supported at the federal level. Additional policy issues that our government should be paying attention to include: the modernization of Medicare, the integration of Medicare and Medicaid,
as well the integration of acute and long term care services,
policies that help improve the quality of health care for older adults and recognition by the federal government that indeed, ageism, is a problem. Aging is everyone’s business.
By Lydia K. Manning, Ph.D.
Lydia Manning is a gerontologist, educator and entrepreneur with a wide range of experience in the field of aging. She is an associate professor of gerontology at Concordia University Chicago. Dr. Manning received her Ph.D. in social gerontology from the Department of Sociology and Gerontology at Miami University
For updates on aging-related policy, visit www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/