The White House Conference on Aging FeaturedWritten by Adriane Berg
The White House Conference on Aging – Themes, Surprises and Realities
By Adriane Berg
Every 10 years leaders in the field of aging gather in Washington D.C. to attend the White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA). The WHCOA sets the tone for governmental, nonprofit and commercial efforts that will affect us all.
This year, there were significant themes which express the state of aging today:
- Focus on family and professional caregivers
- The woeful state of retirement savings of boomers
- The disgrace of elder abuse
- Age friendly and dementia friendly universally designed communities
- Continued food insecurity
- The ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives
It cannot be ignored that both Medicare and Medicaid turn fifty this year and Social Security turns 80. Will these programs enjoy further longevity?
WHCOA speakers made an important distinction between aging and being old.
Age is a negative word; because old is a negative status. In today's confused and fluctuating images and definitions of both aging and old it is refreshing that the WHCOA separated the two. All of us at any age are aging all the time. We should recognize this as early in life as possible, not only for our own health and future well being, but because policy, laws and budgets will expand when we collectively accept that age related matters affect everyone, not just those over 65.
Another important theme that permeated the day was the current state of care giving.
Actor David Hyde Pierce headed a panel discussion which shed light on the abysmal wage expectations of our professional caregivers, in many states under minimum wage with $13,000 a year as their average income. Family caregivers were recognized for their vast contribution and sacrifice.
Three issues that need further focus are:
- The vast difference in family care giving responsibilities between men and women;
- The nexus between the need for more trained caregivers and an immigration policy that could potentially help us fill the bill;
- Cultural competency in nursing homes, assisted living, and CCRCs with regard to the LGBT community. Given the momentous Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage it is time to knowledge its impact on how that community will age.
Refreshingly, boomers and older adults were acknowledged as mega consumers, adding not detracting from our economy.
Airbnb, HONOR, Peapod, Uber, Care.com, Walgreens and other successful enterprises proved once and for all that the Boomer is an economic force not to be ignored. These companies have a great deal to teach their competitors.
With 78 million people, with billions in spendable income, it is nothing short of ageism for commercial enterprises to consistently skew young with their marketing and advertising.
There were exciting, but all too brief nods, to the issue of universal design.
Barbara Beskind a 91-year-old designer with IDEO explained how a simple bicycle mirror attached to a walker could increase our safety. We need more focus on safe design as falls are still the number one emergency room problem. Walkability; age friendly cities and transition planning were mentioned and hopefully will be given a more in-depth examination, as this is one area where solutions are easy to find.
A financial panel, during the White House portion of the day, reviewed the lamentable savings condition of most baby boomers and their ill preparedness for retirement.
President Obama’s presentation, which was elegant, amusing and thoughtful, spent a great deal of time on the theme of personal finance and healthcare. In discussing Obama Care (his phrase), Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid his clear message was that they will survive; stating that Medicare has been extended 13 years and that some preventive care costs are now also covered.
The importance of self care was not lost on attendees, many of whom are themselves over 60.
Swimming champion Diana Nyad will inspire America with a cross country walk and the YMCA invites older adults to play pickle ball with kids.
Let’s do it.
Kathy Greenlee, U.S. Assistant Secretary on Aging took on the issue of elder abuse with her usual fierce determination. She brought together the world of banking, the Justice Department and law enforcement to create a mini think tank of the how to increase awareness of the financial, sexual and physical abuse that plague too many of our elders.
The issue of food insecurity for seniors never goes away.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Villach partnered with Meals on Wheels nutrition advocate Ellie Hollander to remind us of the enduring issue.
All in all, there is much to be hopeful for from the Conference.
However, we must acknowledge David Hyde Pierce’s words, “How we define ourselves and the words we use become calcified.” The WHCOA was not immune from ageism.
Several speakers gave a shout-out to their parents and spouses at home who were having birthdays; then quickly apologized with a smile about mentioning their age in public. President Obama quipped that he was living in dog years and pointed to his graying hair.
Why are we so thoroughly ashamed of our age even at the WHCOA? What could be demeaning or secretive about being over 60?
Which leads me to the greatest omission at the WHCOA.
There was no panel presentation on employment discrimination for our Boomers and older adults. AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins addressed this issue. But, it is not enough to acknowledge how much we have to contribute; it is also time to rid the HR world of the word “overqualified."
I can only hope that the energy, sincerity and hard work of everyone who spoke and attended the WHCOA will result in 10 years of active progress. One thing is assured, at the next WHCOA everyone who survives will be 10 years older.
“To age is to live...To care is to be human.” David Hyde Pierce
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