As we confront the current pandemic crisis, many working people are experiencing the reality of losing jobs, shuttering a small business and the inability to pay everyday bills like mortgages, rent and groceries. Planning for retirement is nowhere on the radar. If workers were surveyed about retirement readiness today many would likely choose the response pointing to working to 100 as there is ample research finding many Americans readily admit that they are unprepared and worried about retirement.
In past decades, people used the old-school metaphor of a “three-legged stool” to describe what was needed to prepare for retirement— employer pensions, personal savings, and Social Security benefits. Today, it’s rare to secure all three of those income sources. But even during the period that many thought of as a golden age of benefits – the rules and complicated requirements allowed for at least 50 ways to lose out on a pension.
So, over the past forty years workers had to adapt to building their own retirement stool by choosing to work longer and taking full-responsibility for account-type savings plans such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs, and the like. But these plans cause stress and worry about their investment performance and the long-term effects of every crisis especially during times of extreme stock market volatility. The truth is that the current economic calamity we are experiencing intensifies the problem of the vulnerability of most Americans.
The recent action by Congress to renew funding for the Older Americans Act (OAA) through fiscal year 2024 offers a glimmer of hope. The renewal— a rare bipartisan legislative success achieved through more than a year of intense negotiation— was signed into law by the President on March 25, 2020.
The OAA, originally enacted in 1965, is the backbone of our nation’s aging services system, but is mostly overlooked in the popular press and is largely unknown to many Americans. It includes funding for a range of home and community-based services that help seniors stay productive and independent. Both Medicare and Medicaid would be stretched even thinner if not for these cost-effective community-based services. Many older persons with multiple chronic illnesses would be forced to overutilize hospitals and other health care providers and face institutional care.
This critical legislation supports an aging network and a nationwide system of nearly 20,000 service providers, plus 600 area agencies on aging providing services such as home-delivered and congregate meals, transportation, in-home services, legal services, elder abuse prevention and caregiver supports. The Aging Network’s outreach also addresses social isolation, respite care, support for those with serious illness, and the long-term care ombudsmen to help residents of nursing homes.
Have you ever heard of the Eldercare Locator? It’s likely you or someone you know will eventually need its services. When my own parents moved and later became ill in Florida, I became a long-distance family caregiver and needed to find help and services. After both parents died, I overheard a neighbor say how good “the daughter” was in finding help for her parents. Another replied that the daughter lived in Washington D.C. and “knew people”. I retell that story this way: what the daughter actually knew about was the Eldercare Locator and the 800 number for this vital program. (800-677-1116).
The final point here is that the 95% of the aging population without long-term care insurance should know that in the broader sense these OAA funded aging programs are a community safety net for each of us. Collectively, the services are key to keeping health care costs down while improving the quality of life for millions of older Americans and their unpaid family caregivers. We should all advise our own family/friend network to become familiar with the availability of aging programs in our own “hoods” and not wait until the inevitable emergency.
The Aging network plays a critical role in providing community-based programs to support and protect seniors. In the current economic crisis and aftermath, these services will become even more important. It would help if Congress would step up and increase the annual appropriations for the OAA network. In doing so, it would let the frontline heroes of the aging network continue to reach vulnerable seniors where they live with services to promote and protect their health and well-being.
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