Celebration of ACL’s Older Americans Month

Each May, the Administration for Community Living observes Older Americans Month. In 2021 the theme is “Communities of Strength,” celebrating the resilience and strength older adults have built during lives filled with successes, failures, joys, and difficulties. The focus this year is on the power of connection and the vital role it plays in well-being. More information about the celebration of Older Americans month, as well as materials, resources, and activities related to this event can be found on ACL’s website through the link above.

As the United States population continues to age, it is essential that the growing research and resources on aging do not overlook people aging with long-term disability, estimated to be between 12 to 15 million people in 2014 (LaPlante, 2014). It is important to consider this subpopulation, as they often experience effects of aging earlier than people without disabilities (Institute of Medicine [IOM], 2007). Additionally, people with certain types of disabilities, such as developmental disabilities, are living longer, yet information about how aging interacts with these disabilities remains scarce. Health care and service providers, caregivers, and individuals with disabilities are often unaware of how age can impact certain types of disabilities.

Traditionally, the aging and disability fields have been separated, with research and services in two distinct siloes. These two fields differ in scope and focus, mainly on the timing of onset of disability and type of disability. For adults without disabilities, disability tends to occur after retirement age, so disability at this point in the lifespan has historically been categorized as aging research. In addition, types of conditions have been “assigned” to either disability or aging research; for example, Alzheimer’s disease has traditionally been studied in the aging research network but not the disability research network (Molton & Ordway, 2019).

Aging and disability networks have also historically looked at the concept of “successful aging” from vastly different perspectives. One author puts it succinctly: “For the disabilities system, aging is a success; for the aging network, disability is a failure” (Ansello, 2004, as cited in Molton & Yorkston, 2017). The concept of successful aging as discussed in aging literature is often too narrow, focusing only on older adults with good health, high cognitive functioning, and active social engagement (Tesch-Römer & Wahl, 2017). This excludes the population of people aging with a disability who may have lower cognitive functioning, chronic health problems, and limited social engagement.

The Interagency Committee on Disability Research (ICDR) recognizes the importance of Older Americans Month and is taking the month of May to highlight older adults who are aging with disability. Collaboration in the disability and aging fields is vital to promote the healthy aging of people with disabilities. Federal interagency collaboration can help facilitate additional research and resources in the emerging field of aging with disability and promote inclusion in all aging resources. Through our contract with the ICDR, New Editions supported the development of an Aging with Disability toolkit that provides a wide range of current research and resources from federal agencies, examples of best practices from across the public and private sectors, gaps in the research, and areas for future research and collaboration. To view the toolkit, visit the ICDR website: https://icdr.acl.gov/resources/reports/aging-disability-toolkit-interagency-collaboration