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The Diverse Elders Coalition Pushes Policy Reform
posted 10.11.2012

By Robert Espinoza

As president and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging, Dr. Yanira Cruz knows well the implications of an impending U.S. demographic shift: the Administration on Aging estimates that between 2008 and 2050, the Latino older adult population will grow from 6.8 to 19.8 percent of the U.S. population ages 65 and older. But as this growth has not been matched with political capital, in 2010 Dr. Cruz helped form the Diverse Elders Coalition (DEC), a group of seven national organizations advocating for federal policy improvements for millions of elders of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) elders.

“The Hispanic population is the largest ethnically diverse group in the U.S., but their unique life experiences and needs are not often considered by policy makers,” said Dr. Cruz. “Also, there is a tremendous wealth of knowledge that diverse older adults have to offer, and the advocacy of the Diverse Elders Coalition is one way to highlight this knowledge.”

These seven organizations form the Diverse Elders Coalition: Asociación Nacional Pro Personas Mayores, the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged, Inc. (NCBA), the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA), the National Indian Council on Aging, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

In its first few meetings the coalition identified areas of shared interest, including strengthening Social Security; increasing funding for programs aimed at marginalized elders (largely through implementing healthcare reform); and ensuring that the Older Americans Act (OAA), through reauthorization, directs more of its resources to marginalized older adults.

By 2011, the coalition had led two successful advocacy efforts.  

In April 2011, the coalition worked with the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO)—a consortium of more than 65 aging services organizations—to issue eight recommendations supporting LGBT elders and elders of color in the LCAO’s “consensus document” for OAA reauthorization. Then from December 2010 to March 2011, policy leaders from SAGE, NCBA and NHCOA met regularly with a subcommittee of the LCAO working on this issue. By March, the LCAO had voted in support of the DEC’s recommendations. And in June, the coalition successfully advised the National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council (the National Prevention Council)—an entity established through healthcare reform—on its National Prevention Strategy to make it more inclusive of diverse elders.

The coalition first submitted a research memo in early 2011 to the National Prevention Council detailing health disparities facing elders of color and LGBT elders, then followed up with six recommendations. When the Council released its National Prevention Strategy in June 2011, several of the coalition’s recommendations had been integrated into the administration’s large-scale, multi-year health plan, including references to age, sexual orientation, cultural and linguistic competence and the need to address health disparities.

“These two advocacy achievements helped affirm our existence and reminded all of us in the coalition what we could accomplish when we advocate together,” said Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE. “Public policy change can take years, and for the coalition to accomplish two major wins within a year of its founding is remarkable.”

It’s this type of efficacy that makes the work of coalition so valuable for addressing issues such as high poverty rates, cultural incompetence from aging providers or general invisibility in government initiatives, according to Doua Thor, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

“The Diverse Elders Coalition is the ideal mechanism to collectively offer solid public policy solutions to the issues our diverse older adults face,” said Thor.

The DEC’s focus this year has been on raising its profile in Washington, D.C., and building support for its policy agenda. Beyond meeting regularly with federal policymakers, the coalition released a report, Securing Our Future: Advancing Economic Security for Diverse Elders on economic security issues facing elders of color and LGBT elders, written by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a think tank in Oakland, Calif. The report proposes a range of policy reform recommendations and successful models for replication. The coalition also launched a blog covering these issues, with regular commentaries from experts and a Facebook movement to enlarge its national supporter base.

In July, the Diverse Elders Coalition held a congressional briefing to discuss the issues raised in its report. The report argues that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid be protected and reformed to make them more inclusive to LGBT older adults, and it recommends that “spousal impoverishment protections” offered under Medicaid be extended to same sex couples.

The report also recommends that the Senior Employment Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) be expanded to provide employment support to a larger number of older adults. According to the report, the National Indian Council on Aging has more constituents on a SCSEP wait list (at 505) than its 476 available slots in the program.

These are the types of programs and policy changes the coalition is trying to strengthen with its advocacy—and its leaders are hoping that Washington will take notice.

Dr. Cruz remains optimistic: “Our hope is that Congress gains a better sense of the challenges diverse older adults face, and the urgency in addressing these issues through meaningful public policy reforms.”

Cruz adds, “Diverse elders are a resilient population that are ready to offer solutions and continue contributing to their communities and country, and the DEC is committed to ensuring that their voices are heard and taken into account.”

Robert Espinoza is the senior director for Public Policy and Communications at SAGE in New York City. 

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