Celebrating and Challenging the Senate Aging Committee

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Dr. Robyn Stone, executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Applied Research, recently helped the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging celebrate its 50 birthday. During testimony at a Capitol Hill forum on Dec. 14, Stone commended the Committee for its ongoing support of older Americans, but also challenged it to explore innovative ways in which long-term care and housing resources could be deployed more effectively.  

It seemed particularly fitting to mark the 50th birthday of the Senate Special Committee on Aging at the end of 2011, a year in which economic and social upheaval dramatically impacted our legislative agendas and the lives of our most vulnerable citizens. The Committee has been an important voice for aging Americans during many other times of economic and social upheaval. Older adults need its strong voice now more than ever.

The Aging Committee celebrated its anniversary on Dec. 14 during a Capitol Hill forum hosted by Committee Chair Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-WI) and former Chair Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). I was invited to participate in the forum and to provide my perspective on the past, present and future of long-term care and housing policy.

During my testimony, I commended the Committee for its ongoing attention to nursing home quality, its promotion of home and community-based services, its support for the paid long-term workforce, and its commitment to service integration and care coordination. I also recommended that, over the next year, the Committee explore: 

  • How new models of service delivery might evolve in response to consumer preferences, the ability of consumers to purchase care, and changes in public policy.
  • Whether and how a quality, competent paid workforce will be developed to meet changing demands for services and supports.
  • How these services and supports can be made affordable for the vast majority of older adults who will need to use them. That affordability is critical, especially in our current economic environment.

Affordable Housing and Integrated Services

Five decades ago, one third of the elderly lived in poverty. That percentage decreased precipitously with the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, but the latest recession has dramatically expanded the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.” 

And who suffers the most? Moderate-income older adults do, because they don’t have the wherewithal to purchase services and supports, and they don’t qualify for government help unless they spend down their assets and move to a nursing home. Only then will Medicaid pay both their housing and their service bills.

This scenario doesn’t make economic sense. And it’s not what consumers want. That is why I recommended that the Senate Special Committee on Aging host a national conversation that explores innovative ways to deploy our long-term care and housing resources more effectively.

Specifically, I challenged the Aging Committee to explore a model that could deliver integrated services and supports to large groups of seniors living in affordable housing properties. Several states, including Vermont and Oregon, are already pursuing this housing-plus-services model in the belief that it will produce service-related savings that can then be used to support housing affordability.

Affordable shelter and services are essential elements of any viable community-based long-term care option. As a bipartisan, investigative body, the Senate Special Committee on Aging is uniquely positioned to begin its 6th decade with a ground-breaking exploration of innovative models that link shelter and services as a way to keep older people healthy while reducing costs and honoring consumer preferences to age in place.