11.24.16 NEW ORLEANS – Being old in America could get a lot more difficult under a Donald Trump presidency, experts in aging warned this week as the impact of the U.S. election reverberated through the massive annual scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.
For some, the hardest part is the realization that older Americans, who will likely be hardest hit by changes to health care and discretionary spending, were among the Republican president-elect’s biggest supporters.
“I have worked in gerontology since the ’80s,” said Toni Miles, a professor at the University of Georgia. “I feel betrayed because older people voted for a guy I couldn’t stomach.”
As an indication of the mood, Canadian flag pins were going like hotcakes at booths manned by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and other Canadian groups studying aging. More than one person joked that the Canadians should have brought a stack of immigration papers with them to the conference in New Orleans.
At a press briefing on the impact of the election on eldercare policy, participants admitted to ripping up the notes they had prepared in advance, because they really didn’t know what to expect under a government that has promised to repeal Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act — but has offered few policy details about what the result might look like for older Americans down the road.
“None of us knows what is going to happen. We can barely keep up with 10 minutes ago,” said Tony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America, which operates an employment program for low-income older adults.
“The world we lived in two weeks ago is different than the world we live in today,” said Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University who played a key role in social security reform. “People are scared as hell out there.”
Brian Lindberg, executive director of the Consumer Coalition for Quality Health Care, said he and others threw out the power points they had prepared for the conference because they were no longer relevant.
“It will be a difficult period,” he said.
The U.S. has the most expensive and least effective health-care system compared to 11 other industrialized nations, according to recent research. Among other things, life expectancy in the U.S. is the lowest among comparable countries and Americans have greater rates of chronic diseases.
And health care was an issue that resonated with many U.S. voters. Analysis by the Economist magazine found that Trump support was strong among the sickest Americans.
Aging experts say misinformation, including the persistent myth that Obamacare would include “death panels”, helped create a hatred of the program that provided new health insurance to around 20 million people and drove votes toward Trump.
But experts on aging policy say likely changes to health care under Trump will probably hit the elderly particularly hard. Trump has promised to rip up Obamacare. Although there are few details — and he has since suggested he might back down on it — experts said they don’t think that can be done entirely or immediately because the system is too complex.
Still, changes to health care will negatively impact seniors, especially if they touch Medicare, the health program for people 65 and older, something House Speaker Paul Ryan says he wants to do by turning it into a voucher system.
People who work with and study the aging population are “very wary” of any talk about turning Medicare into a voucher program, said Lindberg. “The marketplace has failed in many ways. Before we had medicare, people didn’t get coverage.”
As worrisome, said Lindberg, is that Trump promises to cut taxes and increase military spending will put pressure on discretionary spending programs — that includes a growing list of supports to help keep seniors healthy and in their homes. Getting rid of those programs will mean more seniors will end up in hospital, costing the health system more and reducing their quality of life.
Concerns about the future of health care for aging Americans is a growing issue as the demographic bulge of baby boomers reaches retirement age.
The U.S. government under Obama has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in research related to aging, especially Alzheimer’s disease. The fruits of some of that investment were seen in research presentations at the New Orleans conference.
Lindberg and others said there has to be more work done to better understand the disaffected Americans, especially older, rural Americans in so-called “flyover” states, on whom the election hinged.
“To me, this election was a statement that there are a bunch of people who are having a really difficult time and they just don’t know who to blame, but it is somebody else,” said Lindberg.
“The aging rural population, as much as anyone, is getting left behind. We have to come up with solutions or this will not be the last election like this.”
Elizabeth Payne is the recipient of a 2016 Journalists in Aging Fellowship supported by New American Media, The Gerontological Society of America and The Silver Century Foundation.