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.
Mindy Mitchell says
What a let down. I believe it was just an opportunity to mark it off their ‘to-do’ list.
Lizzy D. White says
Wow! I thought it was only me. Beth Baker you are spot on. I watched the entire conference online and was completely underwhelmed. There was a moment when a caretaker asked one of the panels how could she save earning $13 an hour and she was advised to set aside the cash she got in her birthday cards. I knew we were in trouble when I heard that!
Edie Gee says
The unpleasant person inside me says that this was a critical issue (aging and all that it encompasses) that was not only ignored, but controlled to the point of rendering the conference useless. The local (Orlando, FL area) meeting was as uninspiring and provided no sense of like minded people coming together to solve major problems, or at least identify them with a common language. That this conference will not be held again for ten years is troubling. What sort of mess will we find ourselves in by then? I can only say to all of us who fight the good fight, day in and day out, KEEP FIGHTING. If we don’t address the issues, define them, and solve the problems, no one else will.
Phil Schenk says
In general I agree with Beth Baker on this, but I would also point out that when the floor is open for discussion, as it was in the breakout groups and the whole group at the end of the Boston regional, what we get is dominating people with narrow interests, as opposed to useful dialogue. I too would rather have heard from the leaders of the new aging movements.
Nicole Batsch says
Alzheimer’s Society in the UK has served as a model for dementia-friendly communities for the newly announced Dementia Friendly America. England now has over 85 dementia-friendly communities. Of course the UK model is based on other European and Asian models as well. They just co-published with the British Standards Institute, a code of practice that describes what dementia friendly communities are, the areas for action, and ways to measure the successfulness – all developed through a rigorous steering group committee and public consultation which included involvement of people with dementia as integral to its process. Disclosure: I was the technical author, however I really like that in England, its a bottom up approach versus a top down. People with dementia are valued members of the process!
Rebecca Dutton says
I watched one of the regional meetings on-line and felt the same way you did.
Wow, Beth. It sounds like those of us who advocate for changing aging have a VERY long way to go, starting with convincing the organizers of the White House Conference on Aging to wake up and smell the coffee. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait another 10 years for them to get the next one right. That is, if there’s any interest in funding another one. Thanks for your much-needed critical assessment!
Steve McAlilly says
Beth, you nailed it! Precisely. I also lament that the major media outlets didn’t report anything about it. Bit there wasn’t much to report.
Gaea Yudron says
Excellent article–marginalizing the issues and players must be part of the overall dismissal of old age as a stage of life. Hope this changes very soon while the age wave is still cresting.
Thank you for covering this conference. I am with The Conscious Dying Network & we will be launching an aging conference very soon! Perhaps we can collaborate 🙂
Carol Ragsdale says
Thanks, Beth for getting the facts out about this conference. Certainly, lots to think about for the future. Those in power please take note.
Kavan Peterson, Editor, ChangingAging.org says
Yes Beth! I watched the entire conference via livestream video and found it utterly disappointing and commercial. There’s a freaking revolution going on out here in the real world with communities demanding change and in many cases driving the change themselves. If anyone needs evidence that the LTC culture change movement has stagnated this is it — How did we get left out of this conversation? Ai-Jen Poo is hands down one of my favorite advocates for direct care workers but they did not give her a platform to articulate her vision for solutions. Emphasizing the crisis without articulating an inspiring vision for solutions is very damaging. And the commercialism? I have no problem if Merrill Lynch and Bank of America want to educate their workforce on gerontology to better understand the customers whose wealth they manage, but why do they get to advertise that at the WHCOA?? And the Wallgreens in my neighborhood have for years refused to engage with community advocates like our neighborhood Village to post brochures and help support aging in community. Speaking of which, did I miss the section on Age Friendly Cities? Co-Housing? Village to Village? NORC’s? The Green House Project? I guess it was more important to hear from yet another silicon valley venture capitalist to help promote a techno-utopian $20 million task rabbit homecare startup. Getting care from a random succession of strangers sounds like a great improvement on the status quo!
Like Beth, the one exception to my tirade was the announcement of a Dementia Friendly America initiative: http://www.dfamerica.org/
That sounds like a game changer and I look forward to learning more.
Barbara Salvatore says
Sounds like my experience at the Boston Regional meeting. More discouraging was their refusal to provide contact info for the attendees. All that synergy lost.