Editor’s note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes that aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging.
On Jan. 6, the 114th Congress convened with a major difference from the last one: Republicans regained control of the Senate and increased their majority in the House of Representatives, making this the first time in eight years that both Houses are controlled by Republicans.
A new Congress means a new start to the legislative process for the hundreds of bills that were not acted on in the last Congress — characterized as the least productive in recent history. One of those bills is the Older Americans Act. Despite vigorous efforts in the Senate led by Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a bill to renew the act was not voted on in 2014. As a result, the process now must start from scratch in both houses of Congress.
As I recently wrote on Next Avenue, the Older Americans Act has provided millions of adults with much-needed services, including nutrition programs, caregiving, transportation, legal services and elder abuse prevention. Currently, one in five older adults — 11 million people — receive services from an Older Americans Act program. And yet, reauthorization has been stuck.
(MORE: Transforming Life As We Age)
Maybe that’s about to change.
The Past And Some Pressure
The Older Americans Act was last reauthorized in 2006 — the last year Republicans were in charge of both houses of Congress. Public Law 109-365 was a genuine bipartisan effort and extended the law for five years. Leaders from 2006, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) remain in Congress and will be valuable again because of their history with the Older Americans Act.
Also, a White House Conference on Aging is scheduled for 2015, and those of us hoping for passage of the act also hope for strong advocacy from the conference. Such was the case for the 2005 White House Conference on Aging, when the delegates made its reauthorization the top resolution.
Realistically, though, it may take even more advocacy and leadership than we saw in 2005 to break the now four-year stall in renewing this important law. How do we break the stalemate? Here are six ways:
1. Identify and educate advocates Those of us (individuals and organizations) who see the law’s importance must get familiar with the new leaders of Congressional committees and subcommittees responsible for the Older Americans Act. There will be a lot of change, especially in the Senate. Once these individuals are identified, we must begin immediate national and grassroots advocacy to educate and inform them about who the Act serves and its programs, both national and local. Because the Older Americans Act exists in all states and in all Congressional districts, it is not hard to find local stories to share with them.
2. Gather data showing the Older American Act’s power We must compile all the act accomplishes through its programs on behalf of millions of older adults. We need data to drive renewal of the law and adequate funding for its programs. The Older Americans Act cannot continue to be a best-kept secret to policymakers.
3. Call on The White House The Obama Administration needs to be more proactive on behalf of the Older Americans Act and the reauthorization process. The administration can and should drive the process, considering they have six years of experience managing the act and its programs — considerably more time than many members of Congress have even been in office.
4. Agree on priorities Advocates must speak with a unified voice on what the priorities of a new Older Americans Act should be. Division in the ranks of advocates is deadly. This will require organizational give and take on individual issues for the larger cause — the older adults the program serves.
5. Harness social media We need to enhance the Older Americans Act as a social media cause to localize and humanize its daily effects. We can include success stories of older adults remaining independent because of the act and communicate with individual members of Congress on their Facebook or Twitter pages.
6. Get involved Advocates must get more politically active around the Older Americans Act. Congress needs to see the political stakes of their failure to renew the act. Advocates can engage in political action through their work or, if that is not possible, as individual constituents. Grassroots-driven political action is needed to complement traditional organizational advocacy to move the process forward.
Looking To The Future
In 2015, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act. It is more than an anniversary; it should be a catalyst to move the act and its programs into the future.
Consider this: we have not renewed the law in the entire time since first-wave boomers turned 60 and became eligible for the Older Americans Act — not since 2006. That is not a prescription for success. The Older Americans Act and its programs must be modernized to attract the growing number of boomers in general as well as faster-growing specific constituencies of older adults, such as the minority elderly and those who are LGBT.
A new Congress provides a new opportunity for the Older Americans Act. This outstanding and cost-effective program keeps older adults healthy through nutrition and employed with part-time community service jobs. It provides the only direct federal help to family caregivers and protects older adults from abuse. There must be early leadership displayed to see the Older Americans Act renewed, modernized and strengthened for the future.
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