Q&A: Older Americans Month

Q: How can public policy keep pace with the demographic shift taking place in the United States?

A: Americans are blessed to live in a society where people are living longer, healthier lives with a high quality of life and productivity for decades. More than 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the United States. This demographic accounts for nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population. For those enjoying good health and a desire to remain productive and keep earning a paycheck, many of the nation’s 48 million older citizens stay longer in the workforce. The Census Bureau reports the U.S. workforce in 2015 included more than eight million Americans age 65 and older. As they age, people may require more medical care, assistance from caregivers, and social safety nets to manage chronic health conditions and help with physical, mental and social well-being. Decades ago, Congress enacted social contracts to help keep older Americans out of poverty and extend healthy, independent living for as long as possible. Social Security, Medicare and the Older Americans Act created a covenant between younger and older generations in our society. In this Congress, I’m working on bipartisan reforms to help bring down the cost of prescription medicine and conducting fiscal oversight of the Medicare Advantage program to make sure wrongdoers aren’t bilking the system to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense.

Last year, Congress gave a tremendous boost to medical research with passage of the 21st Century Cures Act. The new law increases federal funding for the National Institutes of Health by nearly $5 billion to accelerate research for age-related diseases including Alzheimer’s and cancer. But even smaller scale reforms can make a big difference to improve the quality of life for older Americans. This year I’m advancing a bipartisan measure that would give older individuals easier, more affordable access to hearing aids. Consider that two-thirds of Americans age 70 and older have hearing loss and only one in five people with this hearing loss has a hearing aid. The number one reason for not having a hearing aid when you need one is the expense. I want to make it easier to obtain safe and affordable hearing aids for those four out of five people who need them and can’t afford them. I’ve introduced legislation that would cut the outdated and overly burdensome regulations at the FDA so there would be a category of over-the-counter hearing aids available for those who want them. These products would be a fraction of the cost of today’s hearing aids, much like buying off-the-shelf readers for vision assistance. Our bill would require the FDA to approve a regulatory classification for over the counter hearing aids to set safety and efficacy standards. It makes sense to foster innovation in the marketplace that can help older Americans maintain independence and prevent the social isolation that often occurs with hearing loss. From my key committee assignments in the U.S. Senate, I’m committed to public policy that stands strong for those who spent their lives strengthening the fabric of America so that our children and grandchildren can live in a free and prosperous society.

Q: What measures are you pursuing to thwart abuse, neglect and exploitation among older Americans?

A: As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’m working to raise awareness of elder abuse and prevent scams that exploit older Americans. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that six million older Americans become victims of abuse or exploitation every year. Fraudulent schemes and other forms of financial exploitation cost older Americans at least $2.9 billion annually. Last year, I led a congressional hearing where we heard about the widespread damage caused by elder financial exploitation — with many victims losing their homes or entire life savings. To fight back, I’ve introduced the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act, which would expand the necessary training and tools for law enforcement, investigators and prosecutors to crack down on financial crimes targeting older citizens. I’m also working to stop the exploitation of nursing home residents on social media. Last year I reached out to social media companies and federal agencies to find out what’s being done to protect the privacy of older victims from abusive posts on social media outlets. In response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a notice to every state to make clear that posting demeaning photos and videos on social media of elderly residents is a form of abuse and is prohibited. Last year, the Northern District of Iowa was chosen as one of 10 jurisdictions by the U.S. Department of Justice to create an Elder Justice Task Force. The multi-agency unit will assist in identifying and prosecuting crimes targeting older citizens, from wrongdoing in long-term care facilities to financial scams and other forms of neglect and abuse. For the millions of older Americans who worked hard to carry forward the legacy of opportunity and prosperity for future generations, society owes a debt of gratitude for their service and sacrifice. As a grateful nation, we are called to celebrate the contributions older Americans have made to strengthen our values, our economy, our communities and our country. Let’s repay our fellow citizens who worked on our farms, in our factories and on the front lines by ensuring they live with the dignity and respect they have earned and deserve.

Since 1963, May is observed as Older Americans Month in the United States to recognize and celebrate their achievements and contributions to society.