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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Seniors feel federal pinch

Reduced funding undermines Older Americans Act

For years, the Hunt family put the top of a picnic table over the front steps of their Lincoln Heights house as an impromptu ramp. It was rickety, unstable and dangerous yet necessary – it was the only way several of the family members, including 83-year-old matriarch Darlene Hunt, could get into their home.

Cindy Howard, 59, married into the family in 2012. She had to get out of her power chair and let her husband, who has degenerative discs in his back, and his brother, who has developmental challenges, lift it onto the table top covering the stairs. It scared Howard.

“Oh I wouldn’t be in it,” she said, adding she hated watching the tedious process of balancing the picnic table top on the stairs.

Today, the 1911 house has a real, L-shape wheelchair ramp – safe and sturdy – with grab bars thanks to SNAP’s Housing Improvements Program that helps low income homeowners, often seniors, make repairs that help keep people in their homes.

Yet funding for the home repair program, like other local elder services that receive Older Americans Act money along with state and local money, is uncertain and dwindling every year. Local programs include everything from basic information and referral services provided by Elder Services to home-delivered meals, adult day care, transportation, and home care services such as bathing.

The same fate is playing out across the United States because Congress hasn’t reauthorized the Older Americans Act since 2011. The law celebrated its 50th anniversary in May. Many programs, including those in the Spokane area, are receiving less money than they did in 2012.

For example, the Housing Improvements Program received $114,808 – a mix of federal, state and local dollars – in 2010 compared with $106,406 this year. Elder Services funding for information and assistance along with case management has decreased by $28,822 since 2010.

Lynn Kimball, the executive director of Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington, said the budget reductions make it more challenging to keep low-income seniors stable and in their homes, which saves more money long term than if the people move to assisted living or even become homeless.

Older Americans Act funding in 2014 changed little from a decade ago even as the population grew.

In 2004, OAA funding totaled $1.8 billion while in 2014 it totaled $1.88 billion, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Kimball said it’s a very concerning reality, especially with the wave of baby boomers turning 65. That means millions more people across the country need services as funding declines.

In July 2013, there were 44.7 million people who were 65 and older in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The projected population of that age group is 98.2 million by 2060 – or 1 in 5 U.S. residents. This will be the first time in the country’s history that the 65 and older population will outnumber people younger than 18.

“For us locally, it adds to uncertainty on the funding side,” Kimball said. “It could mean waiting lists for home delivered means, shutting down congregate meal sites, less (van) trips into rural areas.”

So far, Spokane hasn’t had waiting lists for Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels because the group has energized its fundraising efforts and some federal money was restored last year, Kimball said. Most of the other services that receive Older American Act money are also fundraising and accepting donations.

The Housing Improvements Program is seeking “Save-a-Home” sponsors to help continue making emergency repairs for low-income people. The average household received $695 in repairs. From July 2012 to June 2013, the program completed 144 repairs at 109 households.

Craig Howard of SNAP said funding has decreased 44 percent during the past five years and 51 percent during the past eight years. The program has helped people stay in their homes for 30 years.

From 1980 to 2030 it’s estimated that the Older Americans Act and state funding per capita will drop 45 percent in Eastern Washington. At the same time, the 60-plus population will grow by 270 percent, said John Beck, the business and contracts management director for Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington.

Kimball traveled to Washington, D.C., in April to lobby the state congressional delegation.

“The message was really the importance of reauthorizing the Older American Act to make sure there is adequate funding for senior programs, especially with the rising population of seniors,” she said. “It’s great to be able to talk to legislators about our programs the impacts they have in our communities.”

In January, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved and sent a bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), to the Senate that would reauthorize the Older Americans Act for three years. There is no Older Americans Act Reauthorization bill in the House of Representatives.

President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposes an increase of $138 million for the OAA, including a $60 million increase for the congregate and home-delivered meals programs.

“It’s at a standstill,” Kimball said.

That means more fundraising locally, which gets more difficult each year as more programs receive less government funding.

Aging advocates like Kimball worry what that means for families such as the Hunts, where a few minor repairs means keeping them in their home.

Besides the ramp, SNAP has helped the family replace its water heater, install a new bathroom sink, repair the dryer and pay for other maintenance such as plumbing, stove elements and new door bolts.

“They’ve been really good to us,” Howard said, adding that the family has lived in the house since they bought it in 1969 when they first moved to Spokane.