25 Years After The 1995 White House Aging Conference, Where We Are Now
By Bob Blancato, Next Avenue Contributor
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the end of President Clinton’s 1995 White House Conference on Aging, where I was executive director. Delegates at such conferences (3,000 in 1995) make recommendations for national aging policy for the next 10 years. That year’s theme: “The Road to an Aging Policy for the 21st Century.”
So, now that we’re well into the 21st century, where are we on aging policy?
First a little background on the ’95 conference, the fourth in history:
While the conference by statute was to be bipartisan, it was held in a politically charged environment. The President was a Democrat and the Republicans had captured the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years, elected on a political message called the “Contract with America.” A main element of the contract: a call for reform of programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which had been enacted 60 years and 30 years earlier, respectively.
Top Resolution of the 1995 White House Conference on Aging
The top resolution approved by the delegates, who were chosen from the grassroots and involved in aging programs: “Keeping Social Security Sound for Now and for the Future.” Two others: “Preserving the Nature of Medicaid” and “Ensuring the Future of the Medicare Program.”
To reflect on the conference’s successes — and goals yet to be fully met — I contacted a few colleagues and delegates who played a role in it.
Passionate people prepped an agenda for older women’s health and economic security by developing meaningful policy solutions.
Fernando Torres-Gil, then the federal Assistant Secretary for Aging, told me: “The 1995 White House Conference on Aging was a singular contribution to the Clinton administration’s ability to protect public benefits and senior programs… Thanks to the efforts of then Health and Human Services Secretary (and now Democratic Congresswoman) Donna Shalala, this conference involved all leaders of the administration, including the president, First Lady and cabinet officials, and thousands of older persons making their voices heard in support of a strong social safety net. In these times we can only hope that these opportunities arise again.”
Cindy Hounsell, a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging and 1995 conference delegate who founded WISER [Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement] in 1996 as a result of the impact of the conference, said: “Passionate people prepped an agenda for older women’s health and economic security by developing meaningful policy solutions. I found new opportunities for policymakers to examine the broader array of issues including variations among racial and ethnic groups, and the gaps in income protection for older women as caregivers.”
Delegate Brian Lindberg, who was editor of the policy briefing book provided to each delegate, said: “I was impressed with the administration’s commitment to bipartisan, factual, cutting edge issues that became the foundation for the [conference’s] recommendations. Those recommendations protected Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and supported innovations that led to a more empowered older population twenty-five years later.”
New Issues in Aging Policy Introduced
This conference also introduced new issues in aging policy.
One of them: grandparents raising grandchildren. Another: a recognition of the growing constituency of LGBTQ older adults.
The first sign of post-conference progress was the 2000 passage of the National Family Caregivers Program within The Older Americans Act. The second was the steady increase in funding for Alzheimer’s research, a strong priority of the conference. A third was the 2000 law to eliminate the limit on Social Security’s benefits for people 65 and older due to earning outside income.
Some of the Affordable Care Act’s improvements in Medicare, especially for expanded preventive benefits, were outgrowths of the 1995 conference. And improvements to The Older Americans Act in the four reauthorizations after 1995 can also be traced to the conference.
The Conference’s Goals Yet to Be Met
But some key goals from the 1995 White House Conference on Aging have not fully turned into reality yet.
A prime example: the popular resolution on “Financing and Providing Long Term Care and Services.” Others: adequate funding levels for federal programs for older adults; coordinated governmental policies for housing and transportation; federal rules for guardianship; meeting mental health needs of older Americans and expanding programs to assess and address malnutrition.
All told, how are older adults faring now compared to 1995?
Answering that partly requires a focus on how the pandemic might radically alter parts of national aging policy in the future. The ageism and generational disputes that have erupted during the coronavirus crisis are disturbing. The devaluing of an older person’s life — shown by the tragedies occurring every day in our nursing homes and the increased reality of isolation among older adults — are troubling.
But on the brighter side, there are groups speaking out and offering alternatives to pitting generations against each other.
We’re also seeing Congress and the Trump administration starting to address some of the shortcomings in nursing homes. And we have a new appreciation for the value of certain key community-based aging programs like The Older Americans Act, which has received a large infusion of emergency funding because of what it does to help older adults maintain a good quality of life and reduce social isolation.
That said, if today’s national motto is “we are all in this together,” we must adopt those words to shape national aging policy and policies for all ages.
The words of Arthur Flemming — keynote speaker at the 1995 White House Conference on Aging and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Eisenhower — are as fitting and relevant today as they were 25 years ago: “I have a dream… a dream of a national community that will not only live up to its obligations that it has at the present time, but will look forward not backward as far as helping all our people deal with the hazards and vicissitudes of life.”