Insights from the White House Conference on Aging

2015 marks milestone anniversaries for the Older Americans Act, which turned turned 50, as did Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security celebrated its 80th year! Fittingly, we were able to celebrate and reflect on these monumental programs during the fifth White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA). I was proud to represent the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities network as part of this special event, which has been held every decade, as a way to reflect, innovate, and plan for the future of aging policy and practice in America.

I traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the federal interagency viewing party and participate in a day filled with thought-provoking ideas around how we, as a country, will build infrastructure to not only manage our tremendous aging population, but also to actively and enthusiastically support the way we all live in our later years. From conversations to dynamic panel discussions, the event touched on a variety of policy areas including caregiving, elder justice, healthy aging, long term services and supports, and retirement and financial security. It was reported we were joined by more than 600 other viewing parties across the nation!

As I took my seat in the U.S. Department of Transportation atrium, I was introduced to Beth Bienvenu of the National Endowment for the Arts. As we talked about her work, I was inspired by the potential for one’s later years to be a creative awakening and the potential for art to be an answer for improving older adult health and cognition. I was eager to learn about an entire network of organizations across the country, working together to improve the influence and access to creativity-based programs to enhance health, well-being, and engagement for older adults. It was the first of many positive moments I would have throughout the day learning about innovative, evidence-based initiatives rallying in support of our aging population.

President Barack Obama addressed the conference, highlighting a number of proposed policies supporting Americans’ ability to prepare for their older years and age with dignity. He commented that, as a proud grandson who was raised by his grandparents, he would “make sure we keep our promise to protect Social Security.”

The day had many other highlights. The Surgeon General joined with the YMCA in issuing a challenge to the 850 YMCA associations across the country to host intergenerational physical activity events to promote opportunities for young and older Americans to be active together. The Department of Labor promoted the proposed rule requiring retirement advisers to put their clients’ best interest first, before their own profits.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is releasing, by the end of 2015, an advisory to help financial institutions prevent, recognize, and report elder financial exploitation. Assistant Secretary for Aging at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Kathy Greenlee moderated a powerful panel discussion on elder justice, highlighting new technologies to prevent abuse. According to Assistant Secretary Greenlee, President Obama was the first president on record to discuss elder abuse, a major step forward in advancing awareness of this major issue. For a full report of aging policies and programs highlighted at the WHCOA, I encourage you to take a look at the official WHCOA Fact Sheet.

It was powerful to be surrounded by individuals and organizations solely focused on problem solving, innovating, and making life better not only for older adults, but for all individuals and communities across the country—a true testament to much of the work being done by members of the Alliance network. Conversations around technology innovation, national intergenerational health movements, increased supports for older veterans, workforce development initiatives, and elder justice protections marked the work being done nationally to help our country realize a strong vision for the future.

As the day came to a close, Secretary of the Department of Labor Thomas Perez reminded us that “aging is a state of mind,” and how important it is to maintain a positive mindset and life full of purpose and connection to support a healthy lifestyle in our later years.

Throughout the day, conference participants were posed with reflections:

  • What are you doing to ensure your neighbors… your older adult loved ones are protected against abuse? Because we are the eyes and ears that help protect our vulnerable elders.
  • What are you doing in your life now, regardless of age, to support your long-term financial, emotional and physical health? We heard a common thread of prevention and engagement as the keys to healthy aging and were reminded “Aging is living!” and “We are all aging every day,” therefore the path to aging has already begun for each one of us, regardless of our age.

As I left the viewing party, I was proud to be representing the Alliance knowing that the work we all do is positively contributing to the ability of not only older adults to age well, but also of each individual in the community to live well. This conference was a strong reminder of the importance and great need to continue to pursue multi-generational, community based approaches in strengthening our neighborhoods for all.

About the Author: Emily Merritt is the director of intergenerational initiatives at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Contact her to learn more about the Alliance’s intergenerational initiative and what we are doing to support age-integrated healthy aging initiatives.

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