Public Policy Update

Older adults are now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. In 2011, the first group of baby boomers will turn 65, and by 2030 nearly 20 percent of the population is expected to be 65 or older. Our country is now preparing to meet the challenges and opportunities posed by this demographic shift. As part of this effort, the U.S. Congress is working to reauthorize one of the most important pieces of federal aging legislation, the Older Americans Act (OAA).

Originally signed into law in 1965, OAA created the infrastructure to coordinate and provide community-based services and supports for older adults and their families. Among the variety of services provided under OAA are health care (including mental health); services to prevent abuse, neglect and exploitation; self-help/support groups; support services for family caregivers (including individual counseling and respite care); legal assistance; state health insurance counseling and assistance; congregate and home-delivered nutrition; transportation; housing; community service employment; case management; adult day care; senior centers; energy assistance; and physical fitness/exercise.

APA and the Older Americans Act

APA has a long history of supporting these OAA programs, which are often the primary source of key social services for older Americans most in need. In addition, the psychology community has been an ongoing advocate for the inclusion of services within OAA to address the mentaland behavioral health needs of older adults.

Over the past several months, APA's Public Policy Office (PPO) and the Office on Aging have worked with APA's Committee on Aging (CONA) and other APA members to share with congressional leaders relevant research, practical experience and policy recommendations for the OAA reauthorization.

One such opportunity occurred on March 30, when APA members Florence Denmark, PhD, CONA member and a former APA president; Gregory Hinrichsen, PhD, past-chair of CONA; and Donna Rasin-Waters, PhD, Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology) federal advocacy coordinator and co-chair of the Div. 12 Section II (Clinical Geropsychology) Public Policy Committee, attended an invitation-only Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee meeting to discuss aging policy issues, including the reauthorization of OAA. The three psychologists were among a select group of 20 national aging experts and advocates invited for a discussion with Democratic leaders including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

Denmark, Hinrichsen and Rasin-Waters highlighted the importance of accessible and affordable mental health care as a necessary priority for the aging population. In addition, they shared APA's policy recommendations for the upcoming reauthorization of OAA with key staff members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Among the top APA recommendations was the need to incorporate the Positive Aging Act (S. 1116/H.R. 2629) amendments, which would create an Office of Older Adult Mental Health Services in the Administration on Aging. This office would oversee the development and implementation of initiatives to address the mental and behavioral health needs of older adults, including the provision of grants for mental health screening and treatment services for seniors in both urban and rural communities.

On April 11, APA had another opportunity to share psychology's recommendations for the OAA reauthorization at a bipartisan, bicameral meeting jointly hosted by the Senate HELP Committee and its Subcommittee on Retirement Security and Aging. APA member David Powers, PhD, of Loyola College, in Baltimore, presented APA's recommendations for OAA to a group of key congressional staff members responsible for the reauthorization. In addition to urging policy-makers to adopt the Positive Aging Act, Powers emphasized the importance of increasing support for family caregivers, improving efforts to combat elder abuse and increasing community-based choices for long-term care.

Challenges and opportunities ahead

The growth in the aging population provides a variety of important challenges and opportunities for older adults, family caregivers, health-care providers and policy-makers. During this OAA reauthorization, PPO and the Office on Aging look forward to continuing to work with APA members to ensure that sufficient mental and behavioral health resources are available to meet the needs of the current cohort of older adults, as well as the next generation.

To view APA's recommendations for the 2006 OAA reauthorization and the APA testimony of Powers, visit the PPO Web site.

Further Reading

Diane Elmore, PhD, is a senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Policy Office. For more information on OAA, contact Elmore via email.