What Is the Older Americans Act (OAA)?
The Older Americans Act (OAA) is a law aimed at promoting the well-being of older adults by helping them live healthy, independent lives. The landmark legislation, passed more than 50 years ago, is a major source of funding for state and local services to assist people 60 years and older. The law covers a wide range of services, including ensuring good nutrition, caregiving, helping to find employment, and preventing the abuse of older persons.
Understanding the Older Americans Act
The OAA was passed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiative, which included the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs targeting poverty and social injustice. The law sought to address the lack of community services for older Americans.
- The Older Americans Act (OAA) is one of the most important pieces of legislation for promoting the well-being of older adults in the country.
- The law, which primarily focused on nutrition when passed as part of the Great Society, has expanded its focus to issues such as preventing disease and the abuse of older persons.
- Funding under the law reached a record high during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted older adults.
The OAA established the Administration on Aging (AOA), which sits within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The assistant secretary for aging oversees most of the services administered under the law, though a community service employment component is run by the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.
In the decades since the law was passed, the rate of poverty among Americans aged 65 and older has fallen from nearly 30% to below 9%. Nevertheless, the aging of the baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, presents significant challenges for supporting the growing older population. As of 2018, the number of people aged 65 and older had more than tripled since 1960, growing from 16.2 million to 52.4 million. This group makes up 16% of the population. Those challenges are only poised to grow, with the older population projected to nearly double between 2018 and 2060, from 52.4 million to 94.7 million.
What Does the Older Americans Act Do?
The OAA has expanded beyond its initial focus on providing grants to states for social services and caregiver training, meeting new challenges by adding initiatives to promote elder rights, plan for retirement, and help prevent disease. The AOA’s Aging Network now includes more than 50 state and territorial units on aging (SUAs), more than 600 local area agencies on aging (AAAs), and more than 280 Native American organizations, not to mention the nearly 20,000 service providers.
Funding for OAA programs reached its highest level ever in fiscal year 2021, at $3.74 billion, to help protect and support a population that was disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s review some of the key programs.
Promoting health and preventing disease
Situated as it is within the Department of Health and Human Services, the AOA puts a lot of emphasis on supporting healthy lifestyles for older Americans. Grants administered under the law include initiatives to prevent diseases and manage chronic conditions, such as arthritis and diabetes, with the goal of avoiding more-expensive medical procedures down the road. The agency also provides services and training to community-based organizations to address mental health, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The OAA, and the Aging Network it fosters, has also had a key role to play in protecting older Americans’ health during the pandemic. For example, the Biden administration recently announced nearly $100 million in grants distributed through the ACL to help bring down barriers to COVID-19 vaccinations. In addition, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provided $460 million for supportive services, such as COVID-19 outreach, transportation to vaccination sites, and efforts to alleviate social isolation, as well as $44 million for disease prevention.
A core focus of the OAA is nutrition, providing grants to states and U.S. territories to help reduce hunger and promote health and socialization. The nutrition initiative has two components, both delivering meals at home through programs such as Meals on Wheels and providing food services to senior centers, churches, and living communities. About 150 million meals are delivered every year through the program, with an additional 73 million provided at facilities catering to older adults. The nutritional programs supported by the law have received a boost of more than $1 billion in additional funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the bulk of the funding going toward home-delivered meals.
Protecting elder rights
The law has also been expanded to strengthen protections for older adults against abuse, neglect, and exploitation. An estimated one in 10 older people experience some level of abuse and the odds increases to one in two for older people with dementia.
With funding through the OAA, the National Center on Elder Abuse provides information on preventing elder abuse and training to state and local elder abuse organizations. Meanwhile, the National Long-Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center provides training to state and local ombudsmen, which look after the well-being of older people living in long-term care facilities. The ombudsman program handles as many as 200,000 complaints each year.
Supporting part-time work
In a program overseen by the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, the law also helps low-income older people find part-time work in community service. Working at places such as schools, hospitals, and daycare and senior centers, participants in the program are paid at least the state or federal minimum wage and gain on-the-job skills as well as other services.
The jobs program, which is supporting more than 56,000 people, became particularly important when the pandemic shut down segments of the U.S. economy. The average monthly jobless rate for those aged 65 and over hit a record 7.5% in 2020, while nearly 1 million older workers left the labor force last year.
Supporting older Native Americans
Since 1978, the OAA has provided funding and services to Native Americans, ranging from nutrition to caregiving to transportation. About 400 tribes, villages, and other Native American groups are supported by the program, which got a $32 million funding boost to address challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also National Resource Centers on Native American Elders that provide information on health, elder abuse, and other issues.
The Bottom Line
With the older generation poised to continue to expand in the coming decades, laws such as the OAA will play a critical role in helping to keep older people happy and healthy. The programs supported by the law provide a wide range of services.
If you or someone you know is in need of care, the National Eldercare Locator and Engagement can help you find services in your area. To report abuse, you can contact a representative from Adult Protective Services or, if the person is at a long-term care facility, through the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program.