07/14/2010 05:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

45 Years of Helping Seniors Age in Place. What's Next? Economic Security.

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the signing of the Older Americans Act. This landmark legislation created a wide range of services that allow elders to stay in their homes and communities -- where they want to be. Birthdays, like this one, are cause for celebration! And when it comes to the Older Americans Act, there's a lot to celebrate. Without the Older Americans Act, millions of seniors would be without critical supports that help them age in place, including meals at home, long-term care, job training and support for family caregivers.

Birthdays are also good days for reflection. It is a good time to ask: How can we help our nation's seniors and their families even more? How can we make the Older Americans Act even better? For me, the answer is to make economic security part of the Older Americans Act.

Older Americans Act programs already help seniors fill the income gap, moving them further from poverty and closer to economic security. Without the community-based supports provided through the legislation, many seniors would be without the meals, transportation, home health services, adult day care and other services that allow them to meet their basic needs and age in place.

The Older Americans Act could be made better by making explicit what it already accomplishes and by measuring that success. Making economic security an explicit part of the legislation will require a clear and accurate definition. The framework and tools of the Elder Economic Security Initiative, including the Elder Economic Security Standard™ Index (Elder Index), are already endorsed and used by providers within and outside the aging network created through the Act.

The Elder Index measures the cost of basic needs for seniors living in the community, including: housing, health care, food, transportation, miscellaneous essentials and, when necessary, home and community-based long-term care. An economic security frame and the Elder Index could be incorporated into the legislation in four critical ways:

  1. Establish economic security as a primary goal of the Older Americans Act. Define economic security as being able to meet all basic needs.

  • Measure economic need using the Elder Index. Meet the Older Americans Act goals of directing services to those with the greatest economic and social need by targeting those with incomes that fall short of the Elder Index.
  • Evaluate Older Americans Act program and services through use of the Elder Index. Evaluate the impact of all programs authorized by the Act through the development of an economic security evidence-base.
  • Use the Elder Index to improve Older Americans Act programs and services. Pilot test innovative uses of an economic security framework and tools in the Act's existing programs and services, such as information and referral, outreach to low-income seniors on access to benefits, care management and job training.
  • As we celebrate the successes of the Older Americans Act over the last 45 years, let's also look to the future, let's aim higher and do better. Share your ideas on how to improve the Older Americans Act by visiting The Exchange, an online idea forum hosted by the National Council on Aging. Let's work together to improve the Older Americans Act, so that all older adults can age in place with dignity and economic security.