ATLANTA — If negotiators of President Biden’s $3.5 trillion  Build Back Better plan put the needs of older Americans “on the chopping block,” it would be “one of their greatest failures ever” and would have “catastrophic human consequences” for older adults and their families, LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said Sunday during the opening keynote address at the LeadingAge Annual Meeting + Expo.

“Going back to where we were is not an option,” she said. 

Policymakers, Sloan explained, must understand what is at stake. The legislative package, she said, should expand home- and community-based services, help aging services providers offer competitive wages, and increase the supply of affordable senior housing — investments she called “non-negotiable.”

The coronavirus pandemic left no place to hide, no weekends away from cell phones and computers, and no vacations to recharge for long-term care industry professionals, Sloan reminded. Instead, they rolled up their sleeves and went to battle.

“We moved the mountains of bureaucratic inertia,” she said, adding that stories from the frontlines “awakened the minds of policymakers.”

“These were the stories that should have moved lawmakers to tears, and journalists to rage,” she said. “Intermittently, they did; But we faced so many barriers wrought from ageism, ignorance and denial.”

The efforts, however, slowly shrank “mountains of inertia, indifference and ignorance,” and lawmakers recognized the need to support communities through personal protective equipment, supplies, vaccine plans, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and its Provider Relief Fund.

“Our job now is to press harder than ever for sensible public policies and adequate funding to address the flaws in the system that became so evident with COVID,” Sloan said. “We are determined; We are on the case.”

Playing on the meeting’s theme of moving the field forward, outgoing LeadingAge Board Chair Carol Silver-Elliott said that she has seen strength, courage and energy throughout the long-term care field during the pandemic.

“It is time for us to shape our field going forward,” Elliott said. “It’s time for us to tell our story. It’s time for us to stand proud in the work we’ve done and will continue to do. It’s time to harness all of the energy here today and all of the energy going forward.”

The theme of Sunday’s keynote session was Faith, and other keynote sessions at the meeting will have the themes of Value, Hope and Courage. Those themes, Elliott said, are “four roads to move our field forward.”

A.G. Rhodes’ Deke Cateau unveils a photo display honoring frontline staff in Atlanta’s Centennial Park. Photo credit: Robb Cohen Photography & Video

Also speaking at the general session were faith-based leaders Rabbi Shai Held, Muslim Chaplain Tahera Ahma and U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.

Among other offerings on the meeting’s first day were additional educational sessions and the ribbon-cutting on a photo exhibit celebrating professional caregivers at A.G. Rhodes, Lenbrook and Presbyterian Homes of Georgia. The display — which features greater than life-size images of caregivers, along with quotes, will remain in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta through the meeting’s end on Wednesday.

Sunday evening, A.V. Powell & Associates held its fourth Continuing Care Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Honored were John Diffey, former president and CEO of Kendal Corp.; Larry Minnix,  president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based LeadingAge from 2001 to 2015; Mary Alice Ryan, president and CEO, St. Andrew’s Resources for Seniors System since 1990; and Bill Sims, managing principal of wealth management, investment banking and institutional services firm HJ Sims & Co.

The Atlanta City Council proclaimed Sunday as Continuing Care Hall of Fame day in the city, thanks to speaker Bill Campbell, former mayor.

The ceremony “is kind of a big deal … to know that we’ve achieved something that’s bigger than us,” Kendal Corp. President and CEO Sean Kelly said as he inducted Diffey.

Working in long-term care “is a calling, not a job,” Minnix said in his induction speech, later adding, “There’s some purpose in life until the day you die.”

McKnight’s Senior Living Editor Lois Bowers contributed to reporting.