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The White House Conference on Aging: A positive view

October 1, 2006
by James A. Lomastro, PhD
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A long-term care professional shares his opinions on the 2005 conference by James A. Lomastro, PhD

Editor's Note: In mid-September, the Bush administration released the final report of the 2005 White House Conference on Aging. Some 2,500 delegates-consumers, providers, academics, advocates, association representatives, etc., selected by their respective state governments-had spent several December days in Washington deciding on their "top 50 recommendations" for dealing with the aging of America and strategies for implementation. During the proceedings, though, some attendees tangled with conference organizers over its rules and regulations. And for the first time in the 40-plus-year history of the conference, the President did not appear. In the end some delegates wondered out loud whether it had all been worth it and proposed abolishing the event altogether. What does this signify for the September report? A positive perspective is offered by an experienced healthcare academic and administrator who attended the conference as an observer and commentator. In his view, the conference succeeded in creating a convincing and compelling portrait of America's future.

 

 

THIS SEPTEMBER, THE WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE ON AGING RELEASED ITS FINAL REPORT. NO DOUBT THE REPORT'S FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS WILL BE DISCUSSED FOR MONTHS AND EVEN YEARS TO COME. OF IMMEDIATE INTEREST, THOUGH, WAS THE GENESIS OF THIS REPORT. IT IS THE PRODUCT OF A CONTROVERSIAL EVENT.

 

  Not long ago an article in a long-term care industry publication piqued my interest. The author was reporting on one delegate's appraisal of the White House Conference on Aging that occurred last December. I had been there, too, and wondered, initially, if we had attended the same event. Upon reflection I realized that our differences do not so much concern the actual events that took place as the symbolic significance of the occasion.

From the critical delegate's perspective, given its lack of achievements, the White House Conference on Aging ought to be retired forthwith and never convened again. For my part, in covering the conference firsthand for a regional long-term care publication, I was not so much impressed by what it actually accomplished as by the potential it showed for developing the national aging agenda and defining for the next 10 years the relevant issues in aging and healthcare.

Whether we like it or not and whether we agree or not, an aging agenda is out there in public now, thanks to the conference, and it will deeply influence the course of our important debate about aging in America.

Last year's conference occurred just as the baby boomers began to turn 60. The conference was unequivocal: This generation's numbers will profoundly impact aging services and change the way we think about aging in this country. Fittingly enough, boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) were well represented both as conference stakeholders and in many of the forums that occurred before the conference. They acknowledged that these issues touched them personally.

While the conference did not purport to present an aging policy blueprint, or even a plan, as much as a listing or accounting of issues, it represented a beginning. Maybe many actions it took were more symbolic than actual, but they were nonetheless real.

As most readers know, the White House Conference on Aging has occurred approximately every 10 years since 1961. The conference brings together many of the relevant stakeholders associated with aging, including policy makers, political leaders, advocacy groups, service providers, public interest groups, academics, aging constituents, and the press. Many of the aging policy initiatives introduced by the federal government over the past 50 years have been initiated, discussed, and/or recommended by this conference. This year the conference added implementation strategies to its recommendations.

While six major areas of aging were addressed, the most pressing and significant of them were healthcare services and the health status of the aging population. As is becoming increasingly clear, healthcare is becoming the "third rail" of politics and is looming as the single most critical issue in aging.

It did not come as a surprise to me, however, that following the conference there were doubts as to its usefulness and value. For example, before the conference AARP published an article generally favorable to it. However, Eden Alternative/Green House pioneer Bill Thomas commented in the AARP Bulletin following the conference that it had produced "more smoke than fire," and he questioned the value of a gathering that occurs only every 10 years. (And he wasn't the only one.)

There was controversy as well over whether resolutions coming from the floor should be debated--White House organizers had ruled that they could not be--and there were complaints about the lack of input allowed from delegates. However, as noted, the conference's Policy Committee added implementation strategies to the recommendations developed by the delegates, which affirmed, to me at least, that the real work of a conference like this is not so much identifying issues as addressing them.

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