Opinion: Needs of older adults can’t be overlooked

Our country is at a decisive moment. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on older adults during the past two years sheds light on the longstanding critical gaps in the services and care older adults need.

Imagine this: your 74-year-old mother needs help. Since your father’s stroke, she bathes, feeds and cares for him — but has put out her back. With no family or friends close by, she calls around to find a home health aide who can assist her.

More than four weeks pass before help is available.

Or what if your 77-year-old uncle, who relies on his Social Security income, can no longer pay his rent and finds himself without a home. He adds his name to one of hundreds on the list for affordable housing, and is told the wait for a home is years, not days or months. Where will he go?

These are real stories of older Georgians and their families. And millions of older Americans are in similar situations.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Our country is at a decisive moment. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on older adults during the past two years sheds light on the longstanding critical gaps in the services and care older adults need, in Georgia and throughout our country. While the Build Back Better legislation now being debated by Congress includes significant measures that could have a profound impact on older Americans and their families, they may now be on the chopping block because older Americans are missing in the national debate. Our data analysis, “The Invisible Americans,” shows that only a small percent of media stories and fewer than one percent of Congressional tweets about the Build Back Better plan even mentioned older adults.

When older Americans were treated as invisible during COVID, the effects were catastrophic. In 2020, 81% of COVID deaths were among age 65-plus adults.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we cannot let them be invisible again. The lives and well-being of millions of older adults everywhere are truly at risk, including in Georgia, where more than 20% of the population will be 60 or older by 2030, without funding for proposals that will help millions of older Americans and their families get the crucial care and services they need.

Consider this: we know that the foundation of quality care, whether in nursing homes, assisted living or at home, is well-trained, fairly compensated staff. But COVID has exacerbated longstanding workforce challenges in the aging services sector, causing significant staff shortages. Staff shortages, says one of our members who provides in-home nursing and care in Atlanta, resulted in over 1,000 patient requests for service being turned down in 2021 alone.

Proposals in the Build Back Better legislation will deliver much-needed support. For instance, home and community-based services could be expanded through strengthened recruitment and retention opportunities and improved payment rates. Or, grants would be provided to help with workforce recruitment, wage subsidies and child care. And funds would bolster the Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s only effort focused solely on meeting the unique needs of older adults with very low incomes.

In addition to a much-needed increase in the number of existing affordable homes in our nation’s current supply, more service coordinators, who are the linchpin between residents and access to critical services and resources, would be added. Research has found service coordinators increase the use of primary care and reduce hospital visits, have success reaching high-risk populations, and result in fewer nursing home transfers.

These funds can change lives. As one resident of an Atlanta Section 202 community told his service coordinator: “I still can’t believe I live here. I feel safe every time I come home. I don’t even think that I would be comfortable living in my own home. Alone. With no one to help me make phone calls and solve problems. I’m grateful to be here.”

What if we had more stories like that? Rather than feel outrage over the lack of resources, such as the current 6-week wait endured by Atlanta area residents calling for home health aide help from a local area care coordinator, we would feel supported.

Americans across the political spectrum support investments in care and services for our 54 million older adults and their families. Every member of Congress must make that a reality. If Congress cuts out older Americans, it will be one of their greatest failures for the country.

Katie Smith Sloan is president and CEO of LeadingAge, the association of nonprofit providers of aging services. Thousands of LeadingAge’s members are in Atlanta this week for the organization’s annual meeting.