The White House Conference on Aging: Why it should matter to you

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Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.
Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.

If you, like me, completely missed the 2005 White House Conference on Aging (or if you weren't in the field at the time), you may be wondering what the WHCOA is, what it does, and how one can get involved. Below, I share the answers to my own questions under the theory that I can't possibly be the only one who doesn't know enough about the conference.

What it is

The White House Conference on Aging is a once-a-decade national conversation about the needs of our aging population. The goal, according to the WHCOA website, is “to identify and advance actions to improve the quality of life of older Americans.” The first WHCOA was held in 1961, with subsequent conferences in 1971, 1981, 1995, and 2005. As indicated on the conference's website, the 2015 conference takes place during a year that marks the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security.

The 2015 WHCOA agenda

Next year's conference will focus on four main areas:

• Retirement security

• Long-term services and supports that allow elders to remain in the community

• Healthy aging

• Preventing financial exploitation, abuse and neglect of elders (elder justice)

The executive director

2015 WHCOA Executive Director Nora Super has previously held roles as director of public affairs at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, the director of health- and long-term care for AARP, the director of public policy and long-term care relations for Kaiser Permanente, and principal research associate at the National Health Policy Forum.

What it does

For a positive view of the conference, Anne Montgomery's article for the National Academy of Social Insurance points out concrete actions taken as a result of previous conferences. 

According to Montgomery, the 1961 conference led to the development of 50 State Units on Aging as part of the Older Americans Act; the 1971 WHCOA resulted in the creation of the Supplemental Social Insurance program and establishing the National Institute on Aging within the National Institutes of Health; the 1995 WHCOA lead to the National Family Caregiver Support Program; and the 2005 WHCOA “provided momentum for reauthorizing the Older Americans Act in 2006, which strengthened the role of Aging Disability Resource Centers.” 

Delegates to past conferences commented on her article, stating that the WHCOAs have been crucial in identifying problems and their solutions.

No stranger to controversy

For a pessimistic view of the upcoming conference, read Howard Gleckman's forbes.com article, "Will the White House Conference on Aging Accomplish Anything?" Gleckman notes that the $3 million dollar budget asked for this conference is less than a third of the budget for the 2005 conference. He speculates that this will lead to smaller meetings at various locations or online rather than at one larger venue, creating a less cohesive group with more difficulty building consensus. He further believes that the conference is “doomed” due to partisanship and that the agenda is too broad for any topic to get the necessary attention.

Who attends?

According to the 2005 WHCOA final report, delegates for the 2005 conference were selected by governors of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories, members of the 109th Congress, the National Congress of American Indians, and the policy committee. (For the record, I'd accept a nomination to be a 2015 delegate.)

How we can get involved

The WHCOA Get Involved page of the conference website offers three ways for citizens to contribute to the planning of the 2015 conference:

• Sign up for weekly updates by joining the mailing list

• Share written thoughts about issues being addressed at the conference

• Share written or short video stories from older Americans and their caregivers about issues being addressed at the conference.

My take

Maybe Gleckman is right and the conference is doomed to failure from the start. But every week for almost 20 years, I've marched into rehab residents' rooms and encouraged them to do everything they could to make rehab a success because at least then they will know that whatever happens, they tried their best. I feel the same way about the conference.

Five years ago, before I started my blog, I was just some shrink grumbling under her breath about the crazy way things worked — or didn't — in LTC. And now I'm contributing to a larger conversation through this blog, other articles and talks in the field. I'm a big believer in the power of the Internet to bring new voices to the table. It's possible that online WHCOA meetings could add something valuable and unexpected to the conference.

I also appreciate that there's an opportunity to contribute the opinions of our residents and their families and staff via the WHCOA web page. Maybe we won't be as effective as comedian John Oliver when he exhorted his listeners to contact the FCC about net neutrality and their volume of messages broke the FCC website. 

But we can certainly try.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of "The Savvy Resident's Guide," is a 2014 Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is the Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category of the 2014 American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with nearly 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.

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