In this post guest blogger Amy Gotwals, Chief, Public Policy and External Affairs, National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a), looks at changes in OAA congregate nutrition programs.
When the Older Americans Act (OAA) was created in 1965, it was a law ahead of its time, as it envisioned meeting many of the needs of older adults as they age in what we now call a “person-centered” way. The law is updated by Congress every five years on average to ensure adequate flexibility to allow for changing times and innovation. This enduring law and the Aging Network infrastructure that delivers and expands upon its foundational promise is up for reauthorization in Congress this year.
As our advocacy organization works daily with our Area Agency on Aging members across the country, other advocates, stakeholders and Capitol Hill staff to update the law, I am reminded of the challenge inherent in establishing clear federal standards to ensure that all older Americans can access high-quality home and community-based services regardless of their location, without losing the state and local flexibility in the Act. For OAA programs and those who deliver them, this flexibility encourages innovation and creativity and produces nutrition programs and other supportive services that reflect the needs of the community in which they’re rooted.
Maintaining that healthy balance is especially important during this reauthorization cycle, as our nation faces serving a rapidly growing aging population with chronically under-resourced OAA programs. And yet increasing empirical evidence points to what we’ve always known: adequate food and nutrition is essential to maintaining health and well-being.
Reading through submissions to n4a’s annual awards program recently, I saw many exciting examples of Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) using that local flexibility to better serve the unique needs in their communities. AAAs and their nutrition provider partners are fully aware that their nutrition services should be evolving as the senior population is.
The Older Americans Act sets up two types of nutrition services: home-delivered meals for those who cannot easily leave their homes, and congregate meals, which historically are offered in senior or community centers alongside other health or social programming. Both types of programs support healthy nutrition and social engagement, but n4a members report increasing disinterest among Baby Boomers in traditional congregate meals programs, as stigma and misperceptions about these programs can stymie turnout. While the meals programs are just one part of the OAA—other services include transportation, information and referral, in-home assistance, legal services, caregiver supports, case management and much more—their visibility helps educate the community about aging services, and congregate programs in particular often serve as the “first door” through which older adults access a wider range of services down the line. It’s essential that these community-based nutrition programs remain fresh, engaging and effective.
To reverse declining participation and reimagine this critical nutrition program, AAAs are experimenting with new names, new locations and new concepts. For example, in Arlington, VA, the AAA relied on feedback from consumer listening sessions to inform improvements. They learned that their clients wanted higher-quality food; a change of vendor was the solution. Then, a deceptively simple name change voted on by participants led to increased attendance; “Social 60+ Cafes” had more appeal than “congregate meal.”
In north central Ohio, the AAA partnered with local state universities to implement Ohio’s first on-campus congregate meals site. This innovative partnership now offers older adults more menu choices and mealtime flexibility, direct access to on-campus programming, and a chance to be socially engaged in an intergenerational way, something that’s good for people of all ages.
In Iowa, a AAA facing similar consumer decline at traditional congregate meal sites created “Encore Cafes.” By hosting the cafes at a local library and an arts space and looking to non-traditional vendors (in this case a regional grocery store), the AAA offers almost a pop-up version of a congregate site, keeping things fresh and making the same nutrition-and-social-engagement program more appealing to younger older adults who aren’t yet connected to these community services.
As the Aging Network serves an increasingly diverse older population, we must also look to creative solutions to meet cultural or ethnic dietary preferences. In southern California, one AAA partnered with a local Mexican restaurant to reach low-income, rural Hispanic seniors with culturally appropriate food and social connection—and saw program participation surge.
In Kansas, a AAA struggling to get fresh produce to low-income older adults through the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program partnered with a local farmer on a mobile food truck that visits senior residences and senior centers in a tri-county area. And a Missouri AAA just piloted a program that connects home-delivered meal participants to the local food pantry for supplemental supplies via a voice-controlled smart speaker (and the age-friendly training needed to use it).
It’s this local creativity, partnership and innovation that will move the long-standing congregate meals program into the future. This year, the OAA reauthorization process provides an important opportunity to ensure that Congress reinforces the mission of the Act and ensures that today’s AAAs and nutrition providers have the tools they need to serve tomorrow’s older adults.