How Ageism Persists in Public Policy
Elder justice has had a history of being a prime example of ageism in public policy
Ageism manifests in various ways in our nation. When we think of ageism, our minds may gravitate toward its portrayal in the media and entertainment. But ageism also seeps into the fabric of public policy. A current and real example is the continuous struggle to obtain adequate funding to achieve elder justice through elder abuse prevention.
The landmark Elder Justice Act of 2010 took seven years to pass, despite having bipartisan support and being modest in scope. The Elder Justice Coalition, of which I am national coordinator, was in the middle of efforts to get this bill passed.
We encountered an incredible degree of denial that the issue of elder abuse even existed. Denial leads to complicity in failing to address an issue. Even after the Act was finally signed into law, securing $100 million of promised funding has been a struggle ever since.
Congress Won't Renew Elder Justice Act
Congress has also failed to renew the Act after the authority to finance many of its programs expired in 2014. In April, two Democrats, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, introduced the Elder Justice Reauthorization and Modernization Act of 2023, but the bill remains trapped and stalled because no Republican has agreed to co-sponsor either bill, despite a long history of bipartisanship around this issue.
We encountered an incredible degree of denial that the issue of elder abuse even existed.
During a period marked with legislative milestones, with necessary and crucial bills such as The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974, The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act in 1984, and The Violence Against Women Act in 1992, elder abuse was a reality as well, but no law bore its name. This is another example of how ageism is embedded within public policy.
One exception to the policy woes in elder justice occurred during the COVID pandemic. Older adults were becoming victimized by scams that exploited public fear of the deadly virus. Nursing home conditions were deteriorating, and the ombudsman were being denied access. Congress looked to what law they could pump money into to address these issues. In only four months of the pandemic, Congress allocated an unprecedented $376 million dollars for the Elder Justice Act, with most funding going to Adult Protective Services (APS).
Elder Abuse Increases; Funding Does Not
The latest actions to avert a government shutdown provides a reprieve, offering a two-month window before federal funding for APS is possibly eliminated. Under the continuing resolution, there is an allocation of $15 million in direct funding for APS and $1.7 billion for the Social Services Block grant which includes some funding for APS.
This reprieve is crucial to maintain funding to the front lines in all states in the fight against elder abuse. However, this reprieve doesn't signal a decline in elder abuse, it is the opposite.
Headlines across states continue to report concerning trends among elder abuse cases and preventable tragedies.
Historically, the Department of Justice estimates that 1 in 10 older adults are victims of elder abuse. The Federal Trade Commission's latest annual report found that adults 60 and older reported $1.6 billion to scams, with investment scams being the top reported by dollars lost. Investment scams have increased by 175% since 2021.
In 2022, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received nearly one million complaints, with reported losses exceeding $10.3 billion. Headlines across states continue to report concerning trends among elder abuse cases and preventable tragedies.
The Road Ahead
Congress was correct to provide the pandemic funding it did for elder justice. These funds were used wisely by both APS and the ombudsman programs. Rather than reward the wise and proper use of funds, some in Congress want to take the funds away.
The pandemic may be waning, but elder abuse continues. The reality is that more cases of elder abuse have been reported after the pandemic, yet once this pandemic funding is exhausted there will be little or no money for APS to do its work.
Why is it such a struggle to address elder abuse with the necessary resources it takes to combat it? Does ageism fit into the struggle?
There is an opportunity in the months ahead to protect elder justice funding, as modest as it is. To do that, the Senate version of the Labor Health and Human Services Appropriations bill must prevail. Currently, the House bill coming out of Committee would zero out all funding for APS.
Congress Proposes to Cut All APS Funds
It is regrettable that our response to combatting elder abuse is crumb funding. Based on current funding that would be $15 million for APS, $21.8 million for long term care ombudsman, and $33.9 million in other elder abuse prevention activities from the Older Americans Act. Advocates are pushing for what they know is really needed: $188 million for APS and $50 million for ombudsman.
Yet we also must confront the larger question here. Why is it such a struggle to address elder abuse with the necessary resources it takes to combat it? Does ageism fit into the struggle? Discrimination against older Americans might masquerade as fiscal conservatism or overall gridlock. The growing national movement to address and combat ageism must call out all policy ageism that exists.
Elder justice is a glaring example The time to expose this strain of ageism and discredit it forever is now because of one reality: a victim of elder abuse is never the same.