The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has quickly taught us the disturbing lesson that despite the best efforts of many, things in America can quickly fall apart once a crisis hits. We have learned that viruses know no borders, and that no income, ethnicity or state in the union is somehow exempt.

The pandemic has highlighted existing disparities and the virus’ disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income communities — and the direct care staff that support them. And crucially, it also has driven home a new awareness that our individual health very much depends on each other and on the health of America’s most vulnerable. 

This is particularly the case when it comes to older adults, who often are battling multiple, significant health conditions. It’s the case for seniors who require considerable levels of care in nonprofit senior living and skilled nursing facilities, or in their homes and communities – the seniors being served by nonprofit health and human services (HHS) organizations. It’s what we choose to do – or not – with this new awareness that will starkly define health in America for seniors, their families and all of us eventually needing care and services in the years to come.

We know firsthand that the efforts of nonprofit organizations such as those that make up our network of 300 nonprofits at Lutheran Services in America are largely unheralded and provided without fanfare. The teams at these organizations, like at so many nonprofits throughout the United States, are quietly putting their own health at risk each time they go to work.

Leaders at these organizations actively are working to protect their residents and teams every hour of the day. Staff members are keeping people healthy and their loved ones involved, saving lives, or being a comforting presence for seniors and their families in a person’s final days.

But given rising costs and limited resources directly tied to the pandemic, how will millions of American older adults receive needed nonprofit services in the future? If we are to ensure that America’s seniors are able to live healthy lives of purpose and dignity in the community and setting of their choice, then what is most needed is a strong, resilient nonprofit HHS sector. This, in turn, requires reshaping our nation’s health and human services infrastructure to achieve better, more equitable outcomes for everyone.

So how can this be done? Our leaders must quickly view things through a much wider, more realistic lens when it comes to the growing need to build and sustain a thriving nonprofit HHS infrastructure, one that factors in the crucial role that nonprofit organizations play and the vital services they are providing for millions of seniors. Lawmakers must deliver overdue legislative improvements that build in the resources and supports that nonprofit organizations have long needed in America. These improvements must include resources for America’s nonprofits caring for seniors in their homes and communities and in residential care settings in every state.

To this end, we offer these policy improvements that nonprofit respondents to our May 2020 survey said they most need:

  • Expanding access to grants, loans and emergency funding for nonprofits. To ensure the nonprofit HHS sector remains a steady presence for America’s seniors during and after the pandemic, they must have access to needed resources and support that other businesses have. If America’s airline and hotel industries need and deserve support from our government, then nonprofits serving seniors experiencing crisis conditions most certainly do.
  • Supporting nonprofit entities serving seniors, whether they’re in home- and community-based settings or residential care. Forgivable loans for nonprofits providing health and human services absolutely must be on the table during and following this unprecedented time, including for nonprofits with more than 500 employees. Targeted financial support also is sorely needed for the expenses nonprofits are incurring, such as enhanced and overtime pay for front line workers, needed equipment, and other currently unreimbursed expenses attributable to the pandemic.
  • Strengthening and protecting our workforce. An obvious, continuing need is funding for supplies that protect workers on the frontlines serving seniors in their communities, such as personal protective equipment and testing. But another glaring need is addressing the workforce shortage so greatly impacting today’s senior living and care organizations and the people they serve, one that has only worsened during the COVID-19 crisis. Targeted support measures must be crafted to recruit and retain direct care professionals, including addressing wages that reflect existing low reimbursement rates from government.

This straightforward roadmap of priority policy improvements shows what not only is possible in days to come but what is essential.

Plainly put, we are not going back to the way our world was in January. But with huge challenge comes huge opportunity: reshaping the nonprofit HHS infrastructure to ensure the health and well-being of seniors in all communities throughout our nation.

If lawmakers work to take these much-needed steps now, then the “new normal” for us as a nation can be one with better, more equitable outcomes, where all people can count on dignity, safety and well-equipped caregivers as they age. It can be one of greater health, hope and confidence that we can avoid and address health crises of any sort when it comes to aging in America — not just those that stem from a virus.

Charlotte Haberaecker is president and CEO of Lutheran Services in America, a Washington, DC-based not-for-profit. The organization’s network of 300 health and human services organizations serves one in 50 Americans annually, providing services to seniors; children, youth and families; veterans; people with disabilities; refugees; and people affected by disasters.