A Collaborative Approach to Advancing Equitable Aging

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the systemic disparities that leave too many Americans without the resources to age with dignity. For older individuals and their families, being able to afford the necessities of life—shelter, food and healthcare—is essential to dignity, independence and well-being. In an economy critically impacted by an unprecedented health crisis, households with incomes above the federal poverty level are struggling to afford basic necessities.

Current federal poverty rates evoke long-established notions of need and disadvantage that do not reflect reality. The poverty rate methodology is significantly outdated and has not changed since its creation more than 50 years ago, providing an incomplete perspective on older adult well-being. While the official poverty measure and supplemental poverty measure provide policymakers with a level of data with which to make decisions, these measures are not a true benchmark of income adequacy and/or retirement income adequacy.

In 2021, the National Council on Aging (NCOA) released our Equity Promise and annual Impact & Equity Report to demonstrate our commitment to creating measurable improvements in the lives of specific groups who face unique barriers to aging well. These mission-centered frameworks provide us with the next steps in honoring NCOA’s more than 70-year history of serving older adults, especially those who are struggling. The time is now to make our values visible and use strategic and community-driven approaches to advocate and act alongside organizations that represent and provide resources to older adults who have experienced the greatest barriers to aging well.

The Equity in Aging Collaborative

In 2022, NCOA is broadening this effort with the formation of the Equity in Aging Collaborative. The goal is to approach historic challenges through multiple viewpoints—using an educational- and advocacy-driven lens. The Collaborative is a vehicle to connect stakeholders, advocates and partners who are committed to advancing collective, systemic change to address issues of poverty among older adults who have faced and continue to face inequities across their lifetimes. During the initial launch of the Collaborative it will partner with the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston and its Elder Index. The Elder Index is maintained through a partnership between the Gerontology Institute and NCOA.

The ability to age well should not be based on luck or any factor outside our control.

The Elder Index is a measure of the income older adults require to meet their basic needs and to age in place with dignity. It is specific to household size, location and health status, and includes the costs of:

  • Housing
  • Healthcare
  • Transportation
  • Food
  • Miscellaneous essentials

The Elder Index can be used to find out how much is needed to be economically secure by location and family type; compare expenses across locations and family types; download national, state, county and city index data; and access additional information on elder economic security. The Equity in Aging Collaborative will explore shared lessons learned, data and insights, and encourage community-building around the Elder Index and models of implementation at the state level, with the goal of embedding the tool into existing dialogue capturing aging services and supports and federal legislative opportunities and policy considerations.

“When we use an equity-driven framework to extend the accepted idea of poverty beyond the federal poverty level, we can clearly see the need to include more older Americans and help them to live more securely,” said NCOA President and CEO Ramsey Alwin.

“As a vehicle for network activation, the Equity in Aging Collaborative will help NCOA work together with partners who recognize two things—that in certain communities, barriers to socioeconomic mobility render it nearly impossible to age well and that the time is now for modernizing our approach to equitable aging.”

During the years 2022 through 2023, the Equity in Aging Collaborative will:

  • Engage Stakeholders: Implement a collective impact strategy to create a shared vision for national, state and local thought leaders representing diverse communities to lend their expertise and focus on community narratives and insights around improving the economic security of all older adults.
  • Educate and Activate the Network: Use the digital platform NCOA Connect to house a Learning Lab for members to share resources, encourage dialogue, access toolkits, and devise action steps aimed at introducing the Elder Index to local, state and national policymakers. The Learning Lab will incubate best practices from those advocates who have overcome challenges and found success in modernizing definitions of economic adequacy for older adults using the Elder Index as a powerful tool for change.
  • Build Awareness: Facilitate the formulation of a timely policy and advocacy agenda created by members of the Collaborative that identifies federal agency and legislative opportunities in which the Elder Index could be embedded in a way that sparks a national conversation on the need for critical improvements to how we measure the cost of living for older adults.

Over this two-year effort, Equity in Aging Collaborative members will have the opportunity to:

  • Contribute to an awareness-building campaign by sharing stories focused on the impact of poverty on women, communities of color, the LGBTQ community, low-income and rural older adults.
  • Collaborate on advocacy efforts, including authoring articles, publications and a policy brief on the benefits of federal and legislative applications of the Elder Index as a critical way to modernize how we measure poverty for older adults.
  • Participate in a Capitol Hill briefing in the fall of 2023 to share the Collaborative’s work with policy makers, stakeholders and community leaders.

Vivian Nava-Schellinger, NCOA director of Partnerships and Network Activation, is leading the work of the Equity in Aging Collaborative and sees this as an opportunity to act on a promise to serve those most in need.

In certain communities, barriers to socioeconomic mobility render it nearly impossible to age well.

“As advocates driven by mission-centered work, we recognize that each one of us has the power to do something to better the lives of the people we serve,” Nava-Schellinger says.

“Many of us feel the most connected to our work when we witness equitable policies come to life at the local level—impacting a national narrative around a particular issue. The Equity in Aging Collaborative is a vehicle to listen and act during a time in our nation’s history when we need it most.”

Ramsey Alwin is president & CEO of the National Council on Aging, and Vivian Nava-Schellinger, JD, is director of Partnerships and Network Activation at the National Council on Aging, in Arlington, VA.