Highlighting Americans Aging with Disability During ACL’s Older Americans Month
By: Kaitlin Murphy
Older Americans play essential roles in their communities, each offering a lifetime of valuable insight and experiences. The population of older adults in the United States is rapidly growing, with the U.S. Census Bureau predicting that adults over 65 will make up 21 percent of the population by 2030 (up from 14.9 percent in 2019). By 2060, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that one in four Americans will be over age 65, with the number of people over 85 tripling (Vespa, 2018). With this increase in the population of older adults, it is more important than ever to address concerns related to aging. Just as each person is unique, the process of aging is a unique experience for each older adult. The process and experience of aging will look different for each person, reflecting their distinctive abilities, needs, and values.
Every May, the Administration for Community Living (ACL) leads the observance of Older Americans Month to celebrate the lives and contributions of older adults across the nation. This year, the theme of Older Americans Month is Age My Way and includes a focus on aging in place – defined by ACL as “how older adults can plan to stay in their homes and live independently in their communities for as long as possible.” ACL presents this year’s theme as a way to explore the ways older adults can remain in and be involved in their communities.
As the fields of disability and aging are interconnected, it is important to define aging with long-term disability versus aging into disability. When individuals experience the early onset of a disability and begin to experience aging, they are considered to be aging with disability. When people experience the onset of disability as an older adult, they are aging into disability. The most recent estimate of people aging with a long-term disability is between 12 to 15 million people as of 2014, but most aging literature focuses on people aging into disability. This population of people aging with a disability is important to consider, as people with many types of long-term disabilities are living longer lives than previously, due to new medical interventions. Furthermore, this population often experiences the effects of aging earlier than people without disabilities (Institute of Medicine, 2007).
In celebration of Older Americans Month, we highlight New Editions’ work on aging with disability for the Interagency Committee on Disability Research, whose primary mission is to promote coordination and cooperation among federal departments and agencies conducting disability, independent living, and rehabilitation research programs. Under this contract, New Editions prepared a toolkit, Aging with Disability: A Toolkit for Interagency Collaboration, which provides federal research and resources on aging with disability across several agencies. It provides background on this emerging field, relevant legislation, and areas for future research. The toolkit also provides a variety of resources to promote future interagency collaboration within the field of aging with disability.
During Older Americans Month, we want to highlight the importance of recognizing and celebrating those aging with disability. This year’s theme, Age My Way, is a fitting way to continue to weave together the important work of both the aging and disability communities. Services and supports for older adults should consider individual preferences and differences, including disability status. People aging with disability have the same desire as those aging without disabilities to age in place, yet they often face more significant barriers. For example, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been shown to experience an increased quality of life when aging in place, yet face many barriers to aging in place, particularly increased risk of falls (as cited in Sheth, 2021). For people with long-term mobility disabilities, physical challenges and accessibility were the two most frequently reported challenges to aging in place (Koon et al., 2020). Efforts to promote aging in place should ensure consideration of the unique needs of this population.
The aging and disability communities’ shared emphasis on community integration and participation align, and this year’s Older Americans Month theme encourages progress toward this important goal. ACL is encouraging the consideration of planning, engagement, access, and connection as essential elements in supporting aging in place for older adults. These are especially important to consider for adults aging with disability to overcome the significant barriers to aging in place. Considering the unique circumstances for people aging with disability will lead to improved services for all older adults, especially those who may age into a disability. Both groups need integrated services, such as community-based rehabilitation or assistance with activities of daily living (Molton & Yorkston, 2017). Other important services and supports to include for older adults and older adults aging with disability are transportation, community participation, and health promotion.
For more details on Older Americans Month, please visit ACL’s website for the history of the observance, materials, and activity ideas. ACL also maintains a resource list on healthy aging with a disability and a list of its Aging and Disability Resource Centers. Additionally, the National Institute on Aging maintains a list of resources on aging in place.
Institute of Medicine. (2007). Secondary conditions and aging with disability. In M. J. Field & A. M. Jette (Eds.), The future of disability in America (pp.136–161). The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/11898
Koon, L. M., Remillard, E. T., Mitzner, T. L., & Rogers, W. A. (2020). Aging Concerns, Challenges, and Everyday Solution Strategies (ACCESS) for adults aging with a long-term mobility disability. Disability and Health Journal, 13(4). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dhjo.2020.100936.
Molton, I. R., & Yorkston, K. M. (2017). Growing older with a physical disability: A special application of the successful aging paradigm. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 72(2), 290–299. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbw122
Sheth, A. J. (2021). Supporting aging in place for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Impact Feature Issue: Retirement & Aging for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities, 34(3). https://publications.ici.umn.edu/impact/34-3/supporting-aging-in-place#:~:text=Many%20people%2C%20including%20those%20with%20intellectual%20and%20developmental,many%20barriers%20to%20this%20%28Schepens%20et%20al.%2C%202018%29.
Vespa, J. (2018, March 13). The U.S. joins other countries with large aging populations. U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/03/graying-america.html