Aging Initiatives and Reality Checks: The White House Conference on Aging

When AARP’s Jo Ann Jenkins announced it was time to “disrupt aging” and view the elder years as one of life’s most positive phases, she spotlighted the great expectations for Monday’s White House Conference on Aging.

The much-anticipated conference, held at the White House once a decade, addressed a variety of critical topics facing older adults – elder abuse, caregiving, and retirement savings – that were underscored by the shocking demographic shift of more than a quarter million Americans turning 65 each month.

Conference head Nora Super hoped the event would redefine the aging process as a unique time of vibrant growth and adventure. Yet besides Diana Nyad trumpeting her astonishing senior swimming feat – at age 64 she became the first person to swim from Cuba to the Florida without a shark cage – the event was largely serious business.

Speakers from government and private enterprise used the event to launch major new initiatives to address the aging crisis. Yet attendees quickly offered these well-meaning executives reality checks with stories from the trenches.

During the opening discussion about the critical need for caregiver support, panelist Britnee Fergins – a single mother who also cares for her elderly parents – said programs supporting caregivers were ideal… in theory.

“They have all these great programs, but I call them, and either no one answers the phone or they won’t return a phone call,” she said. “If they do answer, there’s another 800 number (to call).”

In 2009, more than 42 million Americans offered unpaid care to an adult family member with at least one physical or mental limitation.

After Robin Diamonte from United Technologies Corporation discussed the critical need for new retirement savings plans for older adults, a hired caregiver in the audience echoed a figure often referenced during the conference — that caregivers make on average just $13,000 a year while relying heavily on SNAP benefits, once known as food stamps.

“How can we save anything?” she asked.

“All of us here are nodding our heads (in agreement),” acknowledged panelist Jean Chatzky, AARP’s financial ambassador. “Because it is very, very hard. You should all be paid more, and that problem will go away.”

Many in the audience sported purple “Fight for $15” t-shirts in support of a $15 hourly wage for caregivers, many of them represented by the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.

“I keep hoping that capitalism will catch up with the need (to pay caregivers more),” said actor David Hyde Pierce, an Alzheimer’s disease activist for two decades and moderator for the opening panel.

The conference marked the 50-year anniversaries of the Older Americans Act, Medicare, and Medicaid (called Medi-Cal in California). It is also the 80-year anniversary of Social Security.

Business and government officials used the event to announce several intriguing initiatives to address the crises of aging.

Health and Human Services secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell announced $36 million in new funds for geriatric training centers to prepare the country for an aging population, along with tighter guidelines for nursing homes and improved training for prosecutors to fight elder abuse.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch will now train all of its financial advisors in aging issues. The company’s Andy Sieg said its growing alliance with USC’s Davis School of Gerontology also meant working with benefits and human resources professionals at 35,000 companies that employ five million workers to help make their companies more age-friendly.

Each panel seemed to spawn a new initiative: the Veterans Administration has launched “My Communities” to connect elder veterans together for support and advice; SNAP benefits (food stamps) will soon be applied to Meals on Wheels; and the ride share company Uber launched a service for seniors in Gainesville, Florida, the first in a series of pilots to address critical transportation needs that include medical appointments.

Elder abuse was a top priority at the conference, and in one of the day’s most emotional moments, Kathlee Greenlee of the Department of Health and Human Services outlined the extensive and varied forms of abuse – physical, sexual and financial – that affect one in 10 U.S. elders.

“They are robbed, beaten and sexually assaulted,” said Greenlee.

Even the head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police admitted he knew little about the topic.

“I was shocked to know of the number of incidents of elder abuse that go unreported,” said James Baker.

Hunger remains a critical problem for the aging, with one in six elder Americans “food insecure” – a staggering increase of 65% since before the financial services meltdown in 2008.

And while great minds see technology as the great solution provider, MIT AgeLab’s director Joe Coughlin reminded attendees that telemedicine – remote specialty care for cardiac and mental health treatment, for instance – has long been available to fill a critical need but faces continued opposition from the healthcare establishment.

There were a number of hopeful moments from the event.

In his brief address, President Obama became the first President ever to reference the topic of elder abuse.

New technology solutions were highlighted to assist caregivers and fight elder abuse.

There are also 50 organizations collaborating to create “dementia friendly communities” nationwide that today include California’s Santa Clara County.

Barbara Beskind, who at 91 achieved her dream of becoming a product designer (now with the internationally-renowned firm IDEO) succinctly identified the best way to create new products for older adults.

“Design with, not for.”

A virtual audience watched the conference’s live Internet stream, many at the more than 600 national “viewing parties.”

Last held in 2005, the first White House Conference on Aging occurred in 1961. Since then, three other conferences have taken place: in 1971, 1981 and 1995.

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