Updating the Older Americans Act In Congress 

By: United States Representitives Pat Tiberi (R-OH) and Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX) Chairman and Ranking Member House Subcommittee on Select Education - June 2006 

It's one of the most important laws for the health and welfare of our country's senior citizens, but most Americans, including many elderly, may not be aware it exists. We're referring to the Older Americans Act, first enacted in 1965 and up for renewal this year. We've written bipartisan legislation that updates this highly effective law to allow us to meet new challenges as we move well into the 21st century. 

Last revised six years ago, the Older Americans Act is the major vehicle for the delivery of social and nutrition services for older persons. Many of us are aware of "Meals on Wheels," or other food programs that not only provide nutrition services but important social interaction for seniors. These programs are made available under the Act, as are others that include community service employment, abuse prevention, in-home care, and the long-term care ombudsman program. 

Congressman Patrick Tiberi  Congressman Ruben Hinojosa 

It is estimated that more than 36 million people in the United States are over the age of 65, and that number will rise sharply in future years. This year, members of the Baby Boom generation begin turning 60, the age at which they become eligible for benefits under the Older Americans Act. In 2011, the "boomers" will begin reaching 65 and by 2030, it is projected that one in five people will be 65 or older. 

Keeping up with these numbers and meeting changing needs are among the challenges we faced as we put together our bill, the Senior Independence Act. We acted after hearing not only from policy makers in Washington, but by taking our subcommittee on the road and listening to those who provide services, or benefit from them at the community level. From Westerville, Ohio to Edinburg, Texas, we heard suggestions about what works and what can be improved. For example, the federal government now makes assistance available to older Americans who act as caregivers to those with Alzheimer's Disease. 

One witness in Ohio made the point that it's not just the elderly who act as caregivers, so the eligibility should be expanded to include all adults. She was right, of course, so our bill includes language that does just what she suggested. Support for caregivers is generally provided through Area Agencies on Aging and can include counseling and training, and care from a "substitute caregiver" if the original needs a temporary respite. Our bill opens up caregiver assistance to a broad new population and should allow more and better home-based care for those suffering from Alzheimer's. 

In Texas, witnesses emphasized the importance of ensuring that the aging network reaches all of our seniors – whether they live in isolated rural areas, in cities, or are more comfortable communicating in a language other than English. Our bill encourages the targeting of these populations with special needs so they may more fully participate in Older Americans Act programs. We were also reminded of the tremendous potential in the soon to retire baby-boom generation and that our older citizens are indispensable partners in the aging network. We were urged to tap into that resource and promote opportunities for volunteerism and employment. Our bill encourages increased volunteerism and enhances coordination between the programs in the Older Americans Act and community-based service programs across the country. Additionally, we maintained and strengthened the dual purpose of the Senior Community Service Employment Program to foster innovative strategies for enhancing employment opportunities for older Americans while ensuring that local communities can continue to count on these workers in senior centers, libraries, hospitals, and other community service jobs. 

Further, we attempt to bring health care monitoring into the 21st Century. Our legislation will allow grants specifically for the development of new practices and technologies that allow physicians and other professionals to remotely monitor the health and well being of elderly persons, either in home or in community based settings. We provide resources to identify innovative, cost-effective strategies to improve delivery of long term care services. We've even updated the cornerstone nutrition programs to emphasize the critical link between sound nutrition and the prevention of chronic disease. 

Even more significantly, we have worked together to strengthen provisions of the law designed to protect our elderly citizens from abuse and neglect. It is a sad fact that many of our senior citizens need this protection, often from family members or even from themselves. Our legislation takes steps to coordinate our system of reporting and stopping the abuse of our seniors. If we truly value our citizens’ right to age with dignity, we must do more to stop this abuse. 

Growing old isn't a Republican issue, nor does it happen only to Democrats. Hopefully all of us, no matter who we are or how we vote, will enjoy long and active lives. That's why it was so important for us to act together in putting together the Senior Independence Act. What came from our work was bipartisan legislation that took into account all points of view, and cleared the House Education and Workforce Committee on a unanimous vote. We think this legislation deserves similar acceptance when it comes before the House of Representatives in the coming weeks.