Every year at the Annual Bipartisan Congressional Awards Dinner, the Alliance for Aging Research proudly honors individuals for their contributions to advance the science of human aging. The Alliance dinner also has a deeper purpose: to remind lawmakers of the nation’s bipartisan commitment to advance medical research to improve the lives of millions of Americans. You can view all of this year’s awardees here. Below, we interview this year’s Distinguished Public Service Award Winner, Senator Chuck Grassley.
The Distinguished Public Service Award is presented each year to a Republican member of Congress who is leading the way for policies encouraging medical research, innovation, and care to benefit Americans as they grow older. What does receiving this award mean to you?
When I was first elected to the U.S. Senate at age 47, I certainly didn’t have my sights set on becoming Senate president pro tempore of the 116th Congress. This month I will celebrate my 86th birthday. Longevity is a blessing. Like all Americans, I’m grateful to live in a society where innovation and medical research has helped unlock cures and treatments that allow millions of aging Americans to celebrate another birthday. Looking back over the last four decades, it’s been a tremendous honor and privilege to serve Iowans here in the people’s branch on issues impacting not only their way of life, but their quality of life. In fact, when I took the gavel of the Senate Finance Committee for the first time in 2001, I referred to this influential panel as the “quality of life” committee. From here, we have legislative and oversight jurisdiction of taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, welfare, and a host of issues affecting the well-being of older Americans, including health care, long-term care, and financial security. In 2016, I welcomed passage of the 21st Century Cures Act that authorized billions of dollars into the research funding pipeline to find effective medical treatments for chronic and terminal illnesses. From cancer, to diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and so many other age-related diseases, the 21st Century Cures Act will help advance medical science and innovation to help spread hope, healing, and health for all Americans. Returning to the helm of the Senate Finance Committee in 2019, I am continuing to steer “quality of life” policies full steam ahead to help older citizens live life to the fullest.
What are some ways you are working to help older adults? What is an example of legislation that you’ve sponsored that has helped to benefit older Americans?
My interest in issues affecting aging Americans started decades ago. As a member of the House Aging Committee alongside Rep. Claude Pepper, D-Fla., I stood shoulder to shoulder with him and other advocates who recognized age discrimination was “as odious as racism or sexism.” Older workers have every right to stay on the job, earn a paycheck and find fulfillment in the dignity of work, just as younger workers do. I’ve co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to fix misguided court rulings that expose older workers to workplace discrimination. A 2009 Supreme Court ruling effectively put the nail in the coffin for older workers seeking justice from workplace discrimination. I’ll continue working to fix this injustice through the legislative branch. Arguably my singular legislative victory for older Americans was passage of Medicare Part D in 2003. The largest overhaul of Medicare in nearly four decades, I recognized the practice of medicine had changed tremendously since Medicare was first enacted in 1965. By adding a voluntary prescription drug benefit, we brought Medicare into the 21st century and provided prescription drug coverage for older Americans. In this Congress, I’m advancing bipartisan drug pricing legislation through legislative channels to bring relief to seniors at the pharmacy counter. My bill would cap out-of-pocket costs for Part D prescription drugs costs. Retirees should not have to skip doses or skip meals to pay for their medication. And older Americans shouldn’t have to give up innovative cures or face rationed care in exchange for cheaper drugs mandated by the government. America’s system of free enterprise has driven innovation for centuries. That’s why I support market-driven, consumer-friendly reforms that foster competition and cures at the same time.
Previously, I served as chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, where I focused oversight efforts on improving delivery of care to nursing home residents. My work helped launch an online tool for loved ones to screen and compare nursing home facilities. During my recent tenure as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I secured passage of elder justice reforms to improve enforcement of crimes against older Americans. My oversight work prompted the federal agency overseeing nursing homes to issue guidance about abusive misuse of social media violating residents in their care. In this Congress, I’m working to update the Elder Justice Act so that its resources are used effectively in local communities.
As a recipient of Distinguished Public Service Award, you join several past recipients of Alliance for Aging Research Congressional awardees who currently serve in Congress, such as Senator Roy Blunt, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Senator Bill Cassidy, Senator Richard Burr, Senator Susan Collins, and Rep. Fred Upton. How do you feel to be joining your colleagues in being recognized for your commitment to older Americans?
I’m honored to join the ranks of these legislative warriors for aging Americans. Aging is a gift of life that no American should take for granted. As policymakers, it’s our responsibility to ensure society lives up to its commitments to older generations of Americans who have devoted a lifetime to raise their families, build strong schools and neighborhoods, pay taxes, serve in the military and report to work for decades. From one generation to the next, Americans seek the American Dream and want to pass on this legacy by leaving their communities and our country even better than they found it. When I think about the work ethic and selfless sacrifice of older generations, I am motivated to leverage my leadership in Congress to make a difference on their behalf. Society owes a debt of gratitude for the lifetime contributions of older citizens, as taxpayers, workers, volunteers, and more. I will continue working with my Senate colleagues to advocate for elder justice, retirement security and quality, affordable health care for older Americans.
In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues older adults face today that must be resolved?
In August I completed my 39th consecutive year holding meetings with Iowans in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. At nearly every meeting, I hear from Iowa families and older citizens about the soaring cost of prescription drugs and the toll it’s taking on their pocketbooks and their lives. It’s devastating to hear from Iowans who have lost loved ones because a family member with diabetes skipped or rationed an insulin dose because it was too expensive to afford. It was devastating to hear from an Iowan who testified at my congressional hearing earlier this year that her mother died due to negligent care in a nursing home. These stories underscore that we have a responsibility to fix what’s wrong in our health care delivery system to help prevent tragedies from devastating more families in America. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I will continue championing these issues and work to pass meaningful reforms that will help reduce drug prices, including a cap on out of pocket costs for older adults on Medicare Part D, and improve quality nursing home care.
What are some things any American can do to ensure the well-being of older adults?
Americans of all ages can make a difference to strengthen generational ties in society. Treat older workers with respect. Reaching a certain age doesn’t disqualify one’s qualifications or productivity in the workspace. Practice simple acts of kindness. Make it a habit to greet people in the eye and say hello when you cross paths on the sidewalk, at the post office, in the grocery store and elsewhere. Stamp out loneliness by carving time out to visit an older relative, family friend or neighbor who lives alone or in a nursing home. Sparing an hour to listen to their stories, play board games or help them at meal time is time well spent. Volunteers are needed in local communities to share meals on wheels, provide transportation for errands and medical appointments and donate time for respite care for family caregivers. Check in regularly with older neighbors, offer to mow their lawn or shovel a driveway after a snowstorm. Just being neighborly, or what my home state calls Iowa Nice, helps people of all ages enjoy a life well-lived.
What does healthy aging mean to you, and how do you practice healthy aging?
I suppose you could say I follow the wisdom of one of America’s early founders: Early to bed and early to rise. This regimen helps me stay sharp and squeeze the most out of every minute of the day. I try to stick to a healthy diet, including iron-rich red meat, and limit my sweet tooth to an occasional scoop of ice cream. Reading dense policy briefings and at least two daily newspapers keep the gears grinding upstairs. And I exercise regularly to help me keep up with my busy Senate schedule that includes ten-hour days on Capitol Hill and meeting with Iowans in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, at least once, every year, when Congress is out of session. Being able to set the pace for staffers and reporters who are decades younger than I am confirms that eating clean and living clean works well for me to age healthy and stay on the go.
What’s one thing that people might not know about you?
Aging is a state of mind. As a lifelong family farmer, work is a way of life. Representing three million Iowans, chairing committee hearings, conducting tireless oversight of federal agencies, keeping pace with a 24/7 news cycle, steering bipartisan, bicameral bills through Congress and pitching in on my fourth-generation family farm in Iowa takes a lot of energy. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Keeping busy keeps me invigorated to keep going. That’s how I’ve managed to keep my commitment to hold 99 county meetings, 39 years in a row. Representing Iowans also keeps me busy on Capitol Hill (sometimes around-the-clock) where I currently hold the longest voting streak without missing a single roll call vote since 1993 in the United States Senate. At age 65, I decided it was time to turn it up a notch. So I started jogging. Twenty years later, I’m still jogging four mornings a week and following up with my own push-ups regimen. I’m grateful for good health and a supportive family. My wife Barbara and I feel especially blessed to have celebrated our 65th wedding anniversary in August.
The Alliance for Aging Research will hold the 2019 Annual Bipartisan Congressional Awards Dinner Heroes in Health: An Evening to Celebrate Engagement, Compassion, and Healthy Aging on Tuesday, September 17, 2019 at the United States Institute of Peace. Meet this year’s awardees here.