We’re consolidating agencies for aging and disability services. Is this a good idea? A little background: the Administration on Aging is now part of the Administration for Community Living. The new administration agency includes the AoA, the Administration on Developmental Disabilities and the Office on Disability. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sibelius, offered this: “”For too long, too many Americans have faced the impossible choice between moving to an institution or living at home without the long-term services and supports they need. The goal of the new Administration for Community Living will be to help people with disabilities and older Americans live productive, satisfying lives.”In Virginia, our Department for the Aging is merging with our Department of Rehabilitative Services and some elements of the Department of Social Services to form the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.
As a former Director for Programs at VDA and an Associate Professor in Gerontology here at VCU, I have mixed reactions. On the one hand, we continue to struggle against the idea that aging means disability. Look around! The overwhelming majority of our aging population is not disabled. Older persons are our political and management leaders, our artistic mentors, our rank and file workers, our professionals, our pillars of caregiving. Furthermore, we want to encourage optimal aging – a time of life of physical and mental health that allows for vibrant, continuing contributions to the society. So the answer is a resounding ‘NO’. Aging does not equal disability.
Yet, chronic disease and disability often come in a time of advanced age. It’s a time when the metabolism of age can no longer keep the disease at bay. With enough disease comes disability. Help is needed to continue to age in place in the community or in a facility. Health and social services are needed. Older persons in this situation need similar services to those needed by persons with disabilities. So the answer to the question “Are services for chronically ill older persons very similar as those needed by persons with disabilities?” The answer is a definite ‘YES’. This consolidation of approach may open doors to collaboration and efficient use of resources to allow more persons, of any age, to receive needed services.
Back to my mixed reaction. As an older person with some chronic disease, I don’t consider myself a person with a disability and I don’t need any services. The new agencies would have little meaning for me. But I remember the dilemma I had while working at Southeastern Senior Services when a 59 year old person with a disability called and asked for a ride to the doctor’s. Because the Older Americans Act serves only persons over the age of 60, we could not help him. It seemed ridiculous that for the want of a few months of age we could not serve a man in need. My hopes for the consolidation are that each person in need of services will be able to access them regardless of age. And I would also expect many of those giving the services will be over the age of 60.