(Next Avenue invited all our 2016 Influencers in Aging to submit essays about the one thing they would like to change about aging in America. This is one of the essays.)
Since we are at the start of a new year, a new president and a semi-new Congress, it seems the right time to answer the question, “If the federal government could change one thing about aging in America, what it would be?”
My answer: Have the government’s policies better align with the realities of an aging society, with policies that promote opportunities while also addressing real challenges.
We have only one dedicated federal program for older workers and it is targeted only to low-income Americans age 55 and older.
Policies for Older Workers
Federal programs and policies should support older workers. We have only one dedicated federal program for older workers — the Senior Community Services Employment Program — and it is targeted only to low-income Americans age 55 and older. The larger Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 needs to become more responsive to all older workers in its programs and services.
Older workers who want to move to more flexible work schedules should be able to do so more easily and their employers should be provided with tax incentives to help them.
We should also eliminate all disincentives for older adults to work, including age-based discrimination in the workplace.
This commitment to promoting productive older adults should also be extended to those who wish to do more volunteer work.
Policies for Family Caregivers
Federal programs and policies should also better support family caregivers. Despite the dramatic rise in the number of families with caregiving responsibilities for older adults, there is only one federal program intended to help family caregivers: The National Family Caregiver Support Program under the Older Americans Act. This is a good program, now in its 16th year, but it is only funded at around $150 million for an entire nation in need of support.
Financial relief for family caregivers is also needed, both in the form of increased tax credits for elder care and the restoration of Social Security earnings credits for those who left the workforce to do caregiving.
Policies to Curb Elder Abuse
The federal government must also catch up to the reality of elder abuse. We continue to provide paltry sums to a problem which impacts one out of every 10 people over age 60 and robs older adults of up to $3 billion a year. We have an Elder Justice Act that would provide dedicated resources to Adult Protective Services and to long-term care ombudsmen, but it has total funding of just about $10 million. The federal government should declare elder abuse as a public health emergency and direct sufficient resources accordingly.
Finally, our nation’s fight against ageism would get a real boost if the federal government formally recognized the problem, made a government-wide commitment to its elimination and changed any programs or policies that promote ageism in any form.
The Good News on Federal Policies
On a positive note, federal policies have begun to align in a positive way for aging in a few ways.
For the first time, Medicaid is spending more on home and community-based care than nursing home care. In addition, we have seen more preventive benefits under Medicare in the past 10 years than in the previous 40 years of the program.
These are positive trends aimed at promoting more independence and choice for older adults and a commitment to achieving wellness. However, some of these gains could be threatened, depending on the outcome of actions to repeal and/or replace The Affordable Care Act.
We now begin a new era in Washington. Let’s hope it can lead to a more enlightened and aging-responsive federal government.