Yes, Virginia, there will be a White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) this year—this July 13. Well, sort of. Congress never re-authorized the Older Americans Act, which provides the statutory framework for the conference. That means no financing and no legislative backing. So just as he’s done with immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, and new automotive fuel standards, President Obama is going it alone. He’s using his limited discretionary funds to host a one-day event at the White House. No delegates traveling from around the country, no opportunity for networking, and probably no major new initiatives. Just a handful of invited speakers and a few webinars with interested individuals calling in from their “watch party” to ask questions.
It’s innovative, capitalizing on technology, social media, and the internet. It’s efficient—no air travel or hotel reservations necessary. It will shine a light on four important areas: healthy aging, long term supports and services, elder justice, and retirement security. The Gerontologist published papers on each of these areas in a special April issue. These papers will serve as the major input, and probably also the output, of the conference. They are thoughtful, articulate articles that collectively offer a vision for geriatric health policy.
It would be small-minded to be critical of what’s not on the WHCOA agenda, given the limited resources available for the conference. Dementia, the single greatest threat to quality of life in advanced age and one of the chief drivers of expensive medical care, didn’t make the cut—but then again the White House already announced the BRAIN initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), an ambitious public/private cooperative enterprise intended to treat, support, and perhaps one day cure, Alzheimer’s disease. Technology in old age—from assistive devices to smart houses to robots—isn’t on the docket. But the very existence of the conference is an impressive accomplishment. It shows ingenuity, imagination, and determination in light of the congressional just-say-no attitude.
Rather than regretting what the WHCOA is not, we should celebrate what it is. It is a testimonial to the recognition that aging is important, that old people matter, and that the US has a responsibility to promote a society to conducive to leading a fulfilling, meaningful life for all our citizens. Congress deserves public castigation for its failure to re-authorize the Older Americans Act which, in addition to providing support for WHCOA also subsidizes home delivered meals, adult day care, congregate meals and caregiver support programs. The average age of the members of the House of Representatives in the 114th Congress is 57. The average age of members of the Senate is 61—which means that before their term expires, many will have reached the age of Medicare eligibility. Dissing aging reveals yet another truth about our do-nothing Congress. It is engaged in a massive denial of aging.