Published in Woonsocket Call on January 17, 2016
In 1958, Rhode Island Congressman John E. Fogarty, a former bricklayer, introduced legislation calling for a White House Conference on Aging (WHCoA) to “promote the dignity, health and economic security of older Americans.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the enacted legislation and the first conference was held in 1961, with subsequent conferences in 1971, 1981, 1995, 2005 and 2015.
Looking back, the 1961 WHCoA played a major role in the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, even the Older Americans Act. Ten years later, the conference’s recommendation’s for automatic cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security ultimately became law in 1975. The founding of the Senate Aging Committee came from recommendations at the 1971 WHCoA.
A Year Marked with Anniversaries
The one-day 2015 WHCoA (usually three days) was actually held at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but with a much smaller assembly than in previous years at Washington hotels, such as in 1995, which had 2,221 delegates and 2005, where about 1,100 selected delegates gathered. But his time, new technologies allowed others to tune in. The White House could only accommodate a few hundred dignitaries.
Over 700 watch parties were held in every state and thousands of people tuned in on Monday, July 13, 2015, to watch the day-long proceedings by live webcast. Over 9,000 people participated, too, through social media on Twitter and Facebook.
But, Paul Kleyman, editor of the Generations Beat Online (GBONews.org), a E-Newsletter for age beat journalist, noted in the Jan. 17, 2016 issue, that this year’s aging conference had no delegate selection process like previous ones. “As we’ve noted previously, though, more than one expert expressed disappointment that the Obama Administration made little effort to muster bipartisan support among GOP congressional members who might well have wanted some representation on the issue going into the 2016 election season. Historically, governors and members of Congress got to pick local constituents in fields from retirement finance to health services with a prestigious delegate appointment to the conference,” says the seasoned journalist who served as a delegate at the 1995 WHCoA.
A Call for an Expansion of Social Security
The WHCoA’s scheduled date in 2015 fell in the year where advocates in aging celebrated the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security. Kleyman notes that the newly released 34 page WHCoA report (with 49 pages of appendices) says, “The 2015 White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) provided an opportunity to recognize the importance of these key programs as well as to look ahead to the next decade.”
President Obama was sent a letter with 74 Congressional cosigners reminding him that over half of today’s older workers are not expected to be able to have sufficient resources upon their retirement to maintain their current standard of living. Although they called for an expansion of Social Security, Kleyman says discussion was “barely audible” at the aging conference.
In addressing the WHCoA attendees, Obama called for “keeping Social Security strong, protecting its future solvency,” pledging to fight “privatization of the program. Kleyman observed that proposed new rules to help workers increase their retirement “stopped short of supporting stronger benefits that they need.”
It’s a Mixed Bag
But, Kleyman says that aging advocates consider the WHCoA’s recommendations a mixed bag. In his E-newsletter article, he references a Jan. 6, 2015 blog penned by Kevin Prindiville who serves as executive director of Justice in Aging. “The report details piecemeal public actions and private initiatives, but ignores the opportunity to lay out an ambitious policy proposal to address pressing systemic challenges,” he says.
Kleyman also zeros in on Prindiville’s observations as to why this year’s WHCoA was of the scaled down. He observed, “To those who followed the WHCOA closely, this was not a surprise. Congress’ failure to reauthorize the Older Americans Act, and the lack of appropriate funding for the conference, meant WHCOA organizers had to produce a conference without a budget. With little infrastructure and support, the White House did not propose any new big, bold ideas to prepare for a population that is literally booming.”
Kleyman says that attendees were pleased to see a recommendation calling for improving the quality and safety requirements in the nation’s 15,000 long-term care facilities and a proposal to allow low-income and frail home bound elders and people with disabilities to use food stamps for meals on wheels.
Meanwhile, attendees were told at this event that physicians would be paid starting in 2016 to counsel patients about their end-of-life care, adds Kleyman, noting that recommendations did not address the nation’s increasing diversity. Yet, there was no discussion on hospice and palliative care, affordable senior housing issues, and little discussion of elder abuse, the need for adequate transportation and long-term care, he says.
See You in 2025
According to the Census Bureau, in 2050, the 65-and-older population will be 83.7 million, almost double of what it was in 2012. The 2015 WHCoA conference has taken place with a skyrocketing older population, referred to as the “Graying of America.” Can this year’s conference provide policy makers with a road map to shape the delivery of services for years to come? As Kleyman says, probably not. “So it goes, at least until 2025,” he says.