A second look: Diving into Pa.’s State Plan on Aging | Ray E. Landis

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My last column began a review of Pennsylvania’s 2020-24 State Plan on Aging, but only discussed one of the five overarching goals of the document. Here is a look at the highlights of what else Pennsylvania has determined are priorities for older Pennsylvanians over the next four years. 

Goal Two: Improve services for older adults and the ability to advocate for them by using evidence-informed planning, committing to data integrity and being accountable for results.

There’s an old saying “You can’t get to where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been” Government uses this as a mantra, and much of the work of the government is using numbers to study what they’ve done and trying to figure out if they can do it better. This effort is used to justify funding, whether from the federal government through the Older Americans Act or through taxpayer (or lottery player) dollars.

Part of this goal is to improve services by comparing data sources in order to identify and mitigate risk to vulnerable older adults – a worthy initiative. But another part of the goal is to tell the story of the Department’s success in reaching target communities. While it is hard to prove success if no one knows about it, delivering these services should have a much higher priority than talking about how it was done.

Goal Three: Establish and enhance efforts to support healthy living, active engagement and a sense of community for all older Pennsylvanians.  

The four objectives of this goal are the main course of aging services in Pennsylvania. Enhancing age-and-dementia-friendly programs, addressing the mental health concerns of older Pennsylvanians, working to prevent social isolation, and engaging in healthy aging and prevention programs are key issues facing the Commonwealth. 

Dementia receives a great deal of attention under this goal. The continuing efforts to better understand this disease and to address the devastating impact it has on individuals and their families must be an important aspect of any focus on older adults. As the number of cases increase, it must also be a major consideration for policymakers.

Goal Four: Emphasize a citizen-first culture that provides outreach, embraces diversity, and honors individual choice.

Racial and economic disparities are a major part of the aging landscape in Pennsylvania. Individuals with resources have access to services and excellent health care. Those without these resources often experience a lower quality of care, leading to health difficulties and reduced longevity.

A major emphasis of this goal is respecting individual choice. It is an important concept, as no one should be forced into a living situation against their will and the overall aging system must not favor one type of care. But individual choice cannot be reserved solely for those with resources. Pennsylvania is now one of only three states that does not permit Medicaid to cover the costs of assisting living or personal care residences in addition to nursing homes. Such a policy severely restricts individual choice – but it is not referenced in the State Plan.

Goal Five: Advocate for the rights of older adults and ensure their safety and dignity by raising awareness of and responding effectively to incidences of abuse, injury, exploitation, violence, and neglect.

Elder abuse, particularly financial exploitation, is an ongoing and growing problem in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s Older Adult Protective Services Act is designed to address and combat this situation. Because of court decisions and the changing nature of elder abuse, the Act needs a significant rewrite. But for the third consecutive legislative session, disputes between the Administration, the House, and the Senate thwarted this effort in 2020.

The State Plan makes the final approval of this legislation the main objective of this goal. It may be the clearest objective in the entire State Plan, and it is an objective everyone interested in the welfare of the older population of Pennsylvania should commit to and pressure legislators and the Administration to achieve.

There is a great deal more in Pennsylvania’s 2020-24 State Plan on Aging. The narrative contains an impressive summary of the challenges facing the Commonwealth as the older population increases as well as details of programs available to older Pennsylvanians and how the Department of Aging works with other state agencies on various initiatives and issues.

But while the goals mention a number of important issues and repeatedly emphasize increasing public awareness of programs and initiatives, they lack urgency. Simply providing more information and increasing efficiencies will not solve concerns such as housing and healthcare. 

Meeting the challenges faced by the Commonwealth as our older population grows will require a concerted effort to convince elected officials and the general public to provide the necessary resources and funding. That is the goal which can make the other goals of Pennsylvania’s 2020-24 State Plan on Aging achievable.