I have to admit I was excited to learn late Friday that I was given a press pass to attend the Conference on Aging, my first time covering a White House event.
But by the end of Monday’s seven-hour conference, I felt flat rather than fired up. From logistical snafus (not enough seats or box lunches for the “VIP” guests—really??) to a surprising number of speakers with little experience in the field of aging to no opportunity for dialogue, the day felt most of all like a lost opportunity.
First some context: The once-bipartisan White House Conference on Aging 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 arguing over resolutions and sweeping policy reforms. But this year, because Congress refused to spend a dime, conference organizers made do with 5 regional events and one day-long national event, which was live-streamed to 600 watch parties around the nation.
Conference organizers had succeeded in bringing together hundreds of people, many of whom have given their lives to transforming the experience of aging in our country. Yet their voices were silenced by a rigid agenda and a lineup of panelists who seemed oblivious to the fact that they were addressing many giants of reform. There was little sense of urgency given the enormity of both the challenges and the opportunities before us.
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. Advocate Ai-Jen Poo got the most applause, with her passionate commitment to caregivers. And other panelists did a fine job with their limited time. I gleaned a few story ideas, such as the effort to create dementia-friendly communities.
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 the most burning issues, such as how to pay for long-term care, how to overhaul a transportation system to meet the needs of an aging population, how to compel nursing homes to transform themselves, and how to tap 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 emphasis was narrowly focused on home care. The Administration announced major new nursing home regulations, but this initiative was lost. 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 asked, how the heck do you save for retirement when you earn $10 an hour?
Did we really need to hear from Walgreen’s that its pharmacists help manage multiple medications for patients? Don’t most pharmacists provide that service? Or that Peapod delivers groceries? Or that Airbnb attracts people over 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.
Instead, silenced by the tightly-controlled agenda, sat visionary audience members such as Dr. Bill Thomas who has done as much as anybody to challenge the institutional nursing home. And social entrepreneur Marc Freedman, founder of Encore, who is mobilizing older adults to make a meaningful difference in the world. And Gay Hannah, a pioneer in aging and creativity, who has led the charge to bring high-quality arts to marginalized older populations. And John Rother, who helped AARP lead important legislative battles for decades. 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.
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.
So how would I have organized the conference? I would have extended it to 8 hours, and spent the morning having, say, four leading voices give provocative 20-minute talks on major 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 pilot projects that could be posted on the Web. That would still allow time for the President to speak before lunch.
During lunch, I’d organize the group into small circles to have meaningful discussion.
In the afternoon, I’d have 3 hours of breakout sessions with a chance for dialogue among those impressive audience members. I’d have recorders capture the ideas that emerged and share on the Web. 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.)
And, oh, I’d let Labor Secretary Perez finish the conference, just as he did.
I’m not sure what the goal of the conference was—but if it was to have participants leave energized and ready to take on the challenges, alas, I fear it did not succeed.