Just before leaving town for the year, Congress passed a budget that increased funding for Alzheimer’s research by 60 percent, but, as usual, provided little new money for programs that help those who have the disease, other frail elders, or their caregivers. Over the past six years, funding for most of these much-needed programs has not even kept up with inflation, much less matched increases in the population of older adults.
The latest money bill reflects the priorities of the Obama Administration’s national Alzheimer’s plan: Target federal dollars on drug research aimed at preventing or delaying dementia. This also appears to be a priority of Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who last week vowed to spend $2 billion a year on Alzheimer’s research, with a goal of ending the disease by 2025. Clinton has also proposed some modest new programs to help caregivers, including a small tax credit, credits toward Social Security benefits, and increased funding for respite care.
While Clinton’s proposals for caregivers were relatively small, they would be significantly more generous than current programs. Spending levels for a wide range of programs for older adults have been largely unchanged throughout the Obama Administration. For current spending, take a look at this handy chart prepared by the National Council on Aging.
In this year’s last-minute budget wheeling and dealing, senior services programs survived what could have been a much worse fate. For instance, had Congress resumed its across-the-board budget sequester, most of these programs would have faced double-digits cuts in funding. Not only were those reductions forestalled, but lawmakers even approved small increases for a few programs.
But if you look at what has happened to funding for senior services programs over the past six years, the picture is deeply discouraging.
For example, here’s what’s happened to federal Department of Human Services (HHS) funding, mostly through the Older Americans Act, for key programs since 2011:
Supportive services and centers, including information services, adult day, and transportation was cut from $368 million in Fiscal 2011 to $348 million in 2016; congregant nutrition funding increased by less than 2 percent over six years; home delivered meals such as Meals on Wheels increased by just 4 percent from $217 million to $226 million; respite care increased from $2 million in 2011 to $3.4 million in 2016.
Other programs have seen deep funding reductions over the past six years. The Senior Community Service Employment Program, which helps low-income older adults find jobs, has had its budget cut from $449 million in 2011 to $434 million in 2016, and the low-income home energy assistance program has had its budget slashed from $4.7 billion to $3.3 billion.
A few important programs have seen funding increases over the period, but they have been extremely modest. The Community Service Block Grant program went from $679 million in 2011 to $715 million, an increase of about 5 percent over six years; the Sec. 202 low-income housing program saw a total 8 percent increase in funding since 2011.
Contrast those changes with Alzheimer’s research. The 2016 budget will boost funding by $350 million to $936 million, a 60 percent increase in one year. The budget also funds a separate $85 million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) research program and even boosts Alzheimer’s research at the Pentagon by $15 million.
The priorities of Congress and the Obama Administration could not be more clear: More money for research while largely ignoring the growing needs of frail elders with dementia or other chronic conditions and their caregivers.
Research into Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias is critically important, and it should be funded. But at least 5 million Americans already have some form of memory impairment and none of this new research it likely to help any of them.
Yet other government programs can help this extremely vulnerable population. For instance, housing, transportation, and home delivered meals can make it possible for many to live at home rather than in an institution, at least for a time. So could better information and respite services for their family members. Too bad policymakers and the Alzheimer’s establishment are not paying attention.