Date: July 16th, 2014
A major initiative of the Alliance for Aging Research is to increase the amount of federal funding to support research that extends a person’s healthy years of life. We see this as one of the most effective strategies to reduce the lengthy, painful period of disease and disability many people face as they grow older. When the Alliance goes to Capitol Hill each year to make our case for increasing the budget for dedicated research that may lead to interventions that simultaneously delay diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease and frailty, we are often asked: “If we achieve this, what would healthier older people DO in their 70s, 80s and 90s?”
Buried beneath the surface of a question like this are decades-old notions of what aging has looked like: prolonged use of wheelchairs, walkers, canes and oxygen tanks, followed by indefinite stays in hospital beds and nursing homes. Why shouldn’t that be the first thing that comes to mind? For years, the aging of the population and the wave of chronic diseases anticipated to come with it have been compared to a natural disaster. For some this picture of aging has not changed. However, for others it has, and it will continue to improve based on advances in health made today.
With support from the MetLife Foundation, the Alliance for Aging Research is revealing the true societal value of extending healthy years of life. We are doing this by providing an annual Silver Scholar Award to the brightest minds in gerontology, economics and demography. One of our Silver Scholars, Dr. Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health, and senior vice president, Columbia University Medical Center, recently published her work in The Atlantic. Dr. Fried reveals that today’s older adults are vibrant, engaged and committed to making meaningful contributions to our country through volunteerism and education.
One federal program that offers older adults the chance to stay involved and give back through volunteerism is called Senior Corps. Unfortunately, this $207 million program is facing potential funding cuts in the coming year, both through the president’s proposed FY 2015 Budget and the majority House budget.
Senior Corps allows those over the age of 55 to serve as Foster Grandparents for troubled and at-risk children and provides them with the mentorship, love and attention that could put them on track to a successful future. Foster Grandparents offer up to 40 hours of their week to work in schools, hospitals, juvenile correctional institutions, daycare facilities and Head Start centers. Foster Grandparents help children learn to read and provide one-on-one tutoring. They mentor troubled teenagers and young mothers. They care for premature infants and children with disabilities. Foster Grandparents also work with children who have been abused or neglected.
Many of the activities Foster Grandparents are involved in directly combat factors contributing to high-risk behavior, poor performance and dropout rates in schools. According to the National Education Association (NEA), the lifetime income difference between high school graduates and dropouts is estimated to be $260,000, with a difference in lifetime income tax payments of $60,000. In the same report, the NEA stated that single mothers who lack a high school diploma are very likely to access housing assistance, food stamps or other federal programs. If all single mothers obtained at least a high school education, the NEA places the annual cost savings at $3.8 billion.
Senior Corps also enables those over age 55 to act as Senior Companions, offering assistance to others in their community who cannot carry out activities of daily living. For up to 40 hours per week, Senior Companions help two to four other seniors live independently. They carry out household errands like shopping and paying bills and also provide transportation to medical appointments. Visits from a Senior Companion give families and professional caregivers respite and friendship. What can seem like trivial tasks actually enable these adults to remain in their homes instead of having to move to more costly institutional care. Recent estimates place the cost of nursing home care at more than $70,000 per person each year.
Senior Corps Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions receive a tax-free stipend of $2.65/per hour for their service. With all of the positive outcomes that can be attributed to the contributions of these program participants, it is difficult to imagine that Senior Corps is facing difficulties due to changes and reductions proposed by the president’s FY 2015 Budget. With these proposed reductions, participants would have their hours capped by 50 percent or more and be required to report their hourly compensation as taxable income. Far worse is that the budget put forward by the majority in the House of Representatives does away with the programs altogether by eliminating the federal Corporation for National Community Service (CNCS), which administers Senior Corps.
Contact your congressperson and senators and urge them to restore full funding for Senior Corps at the CNCS in the FY 2015 appropriations process for the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services and related agencies. If they don’t, they have no right to ask what healthy 70, 80 and 90 year olds are going to do. If we give older adults the opportunities they need to remain productive, they won’t cause the peril of a “disaster” after all. They may just help us solve some of society’s most pressing problems by improving education and care.