On the Older Americans Act and Why We Need to Pay Attention to History

Americans as a group have an unfortunate tendency toward historical amnesia. Not everyone, of course, but in general we seem to prefer to repeat what has gone before and then wonder what happened, rather than preventing disasters in the first place, e.g., learning from battles on race, women’s rights, providing for people in need, and other long-fought fights.

Generations Journal Guest Editor Rich Browdie encountered a bit of this thinking while planning and producing the Winter 2021–22 edition. As he mentioned in one email, he was surprised at how “uninterested people are in how things got to where they are.” In this case the creation of and current state of the Older Americans Act (OAA).

We should all be interested in this well-crafted issue, as it is critical information to have if we are not to repeat the same mistakes, and to watch out for ways in which some might try to lessen the Act’s impact on older adults. An impact that those of us in the aging sector know is crucial, but could be so much stronger.

Incredibly well-suited to helm this issue, Browdie began his career in the aging sector on the ground, as a rural case worker in Pennsylvania. He quickly progressed to executive director of a AAA there, eventually becoming Secretary for Aging for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania after a couple of years in Washington, DC, as Executive Director of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (now USAging), and then spending 17 years as president and CEO of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging in Cleveland. In total he spent five decades as a leader in the aging network.

‘The OAA and its aging network are worth supporting and helping to grow.’

“It’s really hard to say what was the most satisfying,” Browdie said, “as it is a field that constantly changes—with improvements and challenges—driven by the interests of people looking to gain something at odds with what I believed was and is the best course. In short, challenging, dynamic, full of great people, and a lot of fun.”

His leadership included much-valued service to the American Society on Aging as past chair of the Generations Editorial Advisory Board and past president of ASA’s Board of Directors. We were honored that he would tackle this complex issue for us and thankful for his hard work during a difficult year.

Browdie is retired but has remained involved in the work of AAAs in general, and two in particular, the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging and the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. He was motivated to guest edit this issue because he “has always thought of the OAA as being foundational, not only to the programs and activities of the aging network, but also to the challenge of moving the country forward with all of its complexities and diversity.”

Quite the eyes-wide-open personality type, Browdie at the same time has great faith in the aging network and the work that can be done on the ground, with the right legislation in place.

“I believe that nothing survives in public service without active advocacy, maintenance of a foundation, and determination to learn about what to do better. People take for granted that good things will remain and will get better automatically. That’s not true in my experience,” he said.

As ASA has been through a generational change in leadership in the past two years, which upended (and modernized) the way in which things had always been done, so, too, has the aging network. While also shifting toward what Browdie called a “medicalizing and privatizing of both healthcare and long-term services and supports.

“The voices of community level leaders and older people are being diminished in many places, and I hope this edition of the Journal will help people see that the OAA and its aging network are worth supporting and helping to grow.

“I really do believe that serving older people should focus on helping communities support the people who want to live there with all of its complexities, rather than reducing those local connections in service of profit maximization and simplicity for the profit-maker,” said Browdie, who rarely shies away from telling it like it is.

“There are lots of ways that I think the aging network and its performance could be improved, but I hope the next generation of leaders will commit themselves to bringing communities along in developing and improving, rather than putting it all up for bid to the lowest priced, yet most profitable bidders.”