Imagine a tool that could help nations develop smarter policies to address the challenges and opportunities presented by our rapidly aging population.
That is the goal of The John A. Hartford Aging Society Index, currently being developed by the Aging Society Network under the leadership of John W. Rowe, MD.
The Aging Society Index project, approved by The John A. Hartford Foundation’s Board of Trustees in 2015, is working to develop an evidence-based composite measure, or ‘index,’ that describes the capacity of countries to successfully adapt to the world’s aging population.
John A. Hartford Foundation President Terry Fulmer, left, with her Aunt Mary.
In so many ways, we live in the golden age of aging. In the past century, lifespan has doubled. That is one of the greatest, yet underappreciated, accomplishments of modern times. And as more people are living longer than ever before in human history, we are learning more every day about how they can live healthier and happier lives.
My Aunt Mary was a prime example of successful aging. She was the mother of seven children, and when they were grown and her husband died unexpectedly at the young age of 59, she joined the workforce as a teacher’s aide in a school for developmentally disabled children.
This summer we have witnessed catastrophic flooding in Louisiana, raging wildfires in California, and the rapid spread of the Zika virus. These frightening events should remind us about the importance of emergency preparedness. For those of us in the field of aging, these emergencies obligate us to remind everyone about their often outsized effects on older adults and the extra preparations needed for the safety of our aging population.
Flooding in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina.
With the floods in Louisiana, the worst natural disaster to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Sandy, the numbers are staggering. At least 40,000 homes have been damaged, more than 30,000 people had to be rescued, and more than 8,000 people were in shelters last week, including many older adults. Four nursing homes in the Baton Rouge area were evacuated. The death toll attributed to the floods sadly rose to 13 this past weekend with the most recent victim a 93-year old woman who contracted pneumonia after inhaling flood water.
In 1965, the Older Americans Act set in motion a new network of largely community-based social services and supports to help older adults remain healthy and independent, living in their homes and communities as long as possible.
On April 19, 2016, after legislation garnered bipartisan support from both houses of Congress, President Obama signed the latest and long-overdue reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. This is great news for millions of older adults, and truly a cause for celebration as we embark on Older Americans Month in May. This year’s theme, appropriately enough, is “Blaze a Trail.” And it is one that resonates deeply with all of us at The John A. Hartford Foundation, given our own trailblazing work in improving the care of older adults.
Why the Older Americans Act Matters
Avital Benson, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, worked as a 2015 summer intern at The John A. Hartford Foundation.
The first vivid memory that I have is of carrying aluminum foil containers of food up to a large white house in New Jersey. Although I have always had this memory of delivering Meals on Wheels with my mom, I never realized how young I was (2 ½ years old) until I was reminiscing about it recently.
I was telling my mom about how Meals on Wheels often comes up in conversation at The John A. Hartford Foundation as an example of a program that’s a necessity for older adults who are homebound, and I mentioned my memory of helping her deliver meals. Stunned that I still remembered, she looked at me and said that memory had stayed with me for a reason. And she was right.
The landmark United States Supreme Court decision that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution has important implications regarding the health and care of older Americans.
Studies show that denying same-sex couples the right to marry has a negative impact on their mental health, according to a 2006 report by Herdt & Kertzner. And a growing body of evidence suggests that policies conferring protections to same-sex couples are linked to lower health care and mental health care utilization, as well as to decreased health care spending.
There also are numerous studies confirming the health benefits of marriage for older heterosexual couples. “Married persons, on the whole, tend to have lower rates of fatal and nonfatal diseases, physical functioning problems, and disability compared to all other marital status groups,” reported Amy M. Pienta et al. in Health Consequences of Marriage for the Retirement Years, published in the Journal of Family Issues in 2000.
The White House Conference on Aging offers a special, once-a-decade opportunity to focus national attention on issues that the John A. Hartford Foundation has been working on every day for more than three decades. So I am honored and excited to be among those invited to attend this year’s gathering on July 13 with President Obama, national leaders, colleagues in the field, and people participating virtually across the country who will all join in a national conversation about our aging nation.
At the John A. Hartford Foundation, our focus is on better care for older Americans. We believe that improving the quality of care and the way it is delivered will result in better health for older adults and lower health care costs for the nation as a whole. “Healthy Aging,” one of four policy briefs drafted for the conference, addresses issues that are integral to the Foundation’s current grantmaking strategies, including managing chronic conditions, and prevention and treatment for diseases and behavioral health conditions.
I fervently hope that the national dialogue sparked by the conference will lead to more widespread recognition of the critical role to be played by health professionals with specific expertise in aging, and will support efforts to develop, test, and widely spread evidence-based models of care for older adults that achieve better health outcomes at lower costs.
Over the weekend, I walked past my wife and kids watching the new season three of Netflix’s House of Cards and was stunned to see the evil President Frank Underwood ranting at his cabinet to get on with designing his jobs program that would be funded by slashing the “entitlements” of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that are “sucking us dry.”
I gave an impromptu lecture to the family on the folly of this policy position—I’m not sure they noticed. And of course, we’ve also written many times about the false narrative of zero-sum intergenerational conflict. (Read Pitting Older Adults Against Children Is a Zero-Sum Game and Analyze This: Misleading Federal Spending Stats Pit Children Vs. Older Adults.)
But what can anyone do when even television writers feel comfortable with this notion that the benefits that older adults earned in their lifetime of work are a dagger to the heart of the nation? While Underwood is certainly a morally compromised character, in this scene he is actually portrayed as the hero, taking decisive action in the face of a roomful of indecisive, equivocating, naysaying bureaucrats.