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Restore the Older Americans Act

May is Older Americans month. Why should that be important to our Rogue Valley?

Well, first of all, our Rogue Valley features some unique demographics. The Rogue Valley has twice the proportion of residents 60 and older nearly 30 percent of our total population — than the rest of Oregon itself, a relatively gray state.

Not only is the 60-and-older crowd an unusually large one in our valley, but perhaps more significant is that they wield a powerful economic impact on our local economy. For example, while home ownership is about 64 percent across the valley, the home ownership rates for our residents 60 and older is nearly 80 percent, a real boon to the housing and real estate sectors.

And U.S. Census figures also reflect that older residents of the Rogue Valley are much more likely to be contributors to tax-supported programs than recipients of such programs. While the poverty rate for residents 18-64 years old in the two-county region is approximately 23 percent, it is a mere 7 percent for people 65 or older in our area.

As our communities continue to gray, aging issues will become more and more relevant. Not just to the aging population, but to the adult children who will find themselves playing the role of caregiving. And to the employers of those adult children who must realize that for their employees, caring for their aging parents is just as important to them as was raising those children that have finally left the house.

Despite the impact the aging population has on our community, we don't read or hear a lot about aging issues in the media. Let's face it, our culture is one that prizes youth and does its very best to ignore aging. It's a message we see in the media, in Hollywood, and that we hear in our music. Even from our U.S. Congress in Washington, the issues that face older Americans play a back seat to most other domestic issues.

A really good indicator of this congressional apathy toward our aging population is the current status of the broadest, most sweeping piece of federal legislation supporting aging Americans: the Older Americans Act. Approved the same year as the Civil Rights Act —1965 — the Older Americans Act provides a wide breadth of services to our most vulnerable seniors.

Administered locally by the Rogue Valley Council of Governments' Senior & Disability Services, the Older Americans Act provides funding for the Aging and Disability Resource Connection. The ADRC provides free information and assistance to anyone looking for resources for themselves or a loved one they may be caring for. The ADRC provides one-on-one counseling in your home and assistance to family caregivers caring for an elderly person they love — all of this for free.

The Older Americans Act also supports our local Meals on Wheels program, Food & Friends, as well as healthy promotion programs such as Living Well, a self-management program for those with chronic disease or chronic pain — and there are many other services for seniors that the Older Americans Act supports in your community.

You often hear that when it comes to federal programs, "the budget just seems to grow and grow, no matter what the actual need." But when it comes to the Older Americans Act, that would not be true. In fact, for the decade from 2004-2013, total funding for the Older Americans Act was virtually flat. Meanwhile, the number of seniors increased during that same period by 30 percent.

As the senior population continues to grow at a rapid pace, there are more and more seniors who have worked hard all their lives, are now home-bound due to health issues, and now look to Congress to fund critical programs such as Meals on Wheels.

So far, the response from Congress has been dismal. Congress has failed to re-authorize the Older Americans Act for several years now. Then in 2013, Congress took the flat-funded Older Americans Act and delivered an 8 percent cut in funding, known as a sequester. That sequester continues in this year's budget.

Older residents of the Rogue Valley contribute greatly to our community in many ways. It seems only fair that those in need should get a minimal level of support.

Are you 60 or older? Do you have parents or grandparents that are 60 or older? If your answer is yes, maybe you can celebrate Older Americans Month by picking up your phone and letting Congress know what you think about a shrinking level of support for some of our most vulnerable. My bet is, you'll be glad you did.

Dave Toler is director of senior and disability services for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments.