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The 2015 White House Conference on Aging: A Lost Opportunity?
posted 11.09.2015

By Beth Baker

I have to admit I was excited to be given a press pass to attend the 2015 Conference on Aging, my first time covering a White House event. But by the end of the seven-hour conference, I felt flat rather than fired up. Having had a couple of months to reflect on the gathering and to hear from others who attended regional conferences, I feel most of all that it was a lost opportunity.

First some context: The once-bipartisan White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) has been held roughly every decade since passage of the landmark Older Americans Act in 1965. Previous Conferences had 1,000 or more delegates, meeting over a few days and debating sweeping policy reforms.

But this year, because Congress refused to spend a dime, Conference organizers made do with five regional events and one day-long national event, which was live-streamed to 700 watch parties around the nation.

Experts Given Little Voice

Conference organizers brought together 200 people, many who have given their lives to transforming the experience of aging in our country. Yet they were given almost no opportunity to speak, and many panelists seemed oblivious to the fact that they were addressing many giants of reform.

Silenced by the tightly controlled agenda sat visionary audience members such as Dr. Bill Thomas, who has valiantly fought to transform nursing homes and the culture of aging. And social entrepreneur Marc Freedman, founder of Encore, who is mobilizing older adults to make a meaningful difference in the world. And Gay Hanna, a pioneer in aging and creativity, who has led the charge to bring high-quality arts to marginalized older populations. And Elma Holder, who came all the way from Oklahoma, and is perhaps the most beloved advocate for nursing home residents in the country. She was one of the few audience members to be allowed to say a couple of sentences during the session on elder abuse.

Not that there weren’t highlights. President Obama’s talk was well received. Others in the Administration, such as Assistant Secretary for Aging Kathy Greenlee, were on target, and Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez gave exhilarating closing remarks. The Administration announced major new nursing home regulations, and stakeholders are now scrutinizing the impact. Advocate Ai-Jen Poo got the most applause, with her passionate commitment to homecare workers. I gleaned a few story ideas, such as the initiative to create dementia-friendly communities.

The four issues that were given priority are certainly important—retirement security, long-term services and supports, elder justice and healthy aging. But much of the agenda was perplexing: too many speakers represented their own business interests, too much attention was focused on the Obama legacy and not the future, and far too little on such burning issues as poverty and disparity in retirement savings, paying for long-term care, transforming nursing homes that remain dreaded institutions, supporting the growing numbers of those with dementia and tapping the immense potential of older adults as mentors and volunteers, to name a few.

Caregiving, both family and paid, was given its due, although even here, the focus was narrowly on homecare. A panel on financial security did not give enough attention to the most financially insecure among us. Indeed, one of the few live questions of the day was one of the best: a caregiver from Atlanta asked, how the heck do you save for retirement when you earn so little you’re on food stamps? (Answer: Save your birthday money and tax refunds.)

Did we really need to hear from Walgreen’s that its pharmacists help patients manage multiple medications? Don’t most pharmacies provide that service? Or that Peapod delivers groceries? Or that Airbnb attracts people older than 50 and, gosh darn, those old people are better hosts than the millennials? Or that “with just a couple taps on your smart phone” you can request an Uber driver? Yes, it’s good that Uber now offers training to drivers who wish to assist older passengers. But to use the precious time of this decadal event on such minor stories meant we were not hearing from those in the room who could lend real depth and complexity to the issues.

Why, oh why, did moderators give priority to tweets rather than to those who had traveled thousands of miles to be there? I watched as one of two Native American “VIPs” waved her hand eagerly to ask a question, only to be ignored in favor of yet another tweet.

If There’s a Next Time...

So how would I have organized the Conference? I would have replaced panels with experts who could give meaningful and provocative talks on critical issues and allow equal time for audience participation. I’d have a way for audience members, both live and at a distance, to share best practices or successful pilot projects that could be posted on the Web. I’d allow time for break-out sessions or small groups to allow those impressive audience members to talk with the audience. And I’d allow the press to mingle freely, to learn what’s on the minds of these important leaders in aging. (The press was not given the chance to ask a single question.)

I’m not sure of the Conference’s goal—but if it was to have participants leave energized and ready to take on the challenges, alas, I fear it did not succeed.


Beth Baker has covered aging issues for 20 years. She is the author of With a Little Help from Our Friends—Creating Community as We Grow Older (Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014) and Old Age in a New Age—The Promise of Transformative Nursing Homes (Vanderbilt, 2007). This piece was adapted from a blog posted on changingaging.org.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store or Join ASA.


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