The White House Conference on Aging

“Healthy Aging” Meeting Focuses on Illness

Bonnie L. Vorenberg
Senior Theatre expert

As a ranch girl, I have a great sense of direction and it’s usually a snap for me to find my way around the hundreds of hotels I’ve visited during my 25+ years as an expert in arts, aging and Senior Theatre. But none was more confusing than the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington DC, the site of the recent White House Conference on Aging. The hotel has two front entrances, two lobbies, one with carpet and one with a marble floor, several staircases, escalators, and elevators – all going to unconnected locations – along with gift shops and restaurants scattered as if the designer threw them there with a flip of the dice. After several days of serious concentration during my “wayfinding,” a term used in housing for elders, I finally realized that the hotel was a symbol for the conference. Confusing.

The White House Conference on Aging is held every ten years to determine aging policy for the upcoming decade. This December, 1200 delegates from around the country came to Washington. The publicity before the event proudly boasted the theme of “healthy aging.” But by contrast, most of the top ten recommendations were about illness and 22 of the top fifty had to do with health care. Many of us who work with seniors have long fought against the illness model of aging. Yet here it was again raising its ugly head.

The results of this important conference are a serious disconnect between what is happening in communities and research studies that show how today’s seniors are healthier and more active than any prior generation of oldsters. I see and hear about it every day. As the President of ArtAge Publications, I work with over 600+ senior theatre companies in the US, disseminating Senior Theatre news and information along with plays, books and materials. I hear about standing ovations and see photos of seniors dressed in colorful costumes on stages flooded with lighting. I don’t hear about illness. Instead, the theatres entertain and inspire audiences with their vibrant message that “being older can be a great time of life.”

The conference was disconnected from reality perhaps because the country is also disconnected. It’s scary, considering that “77 million baby boomers” are coming down the road. I use that number in quotes because it was the most touted number at the conference. Speaker after speaker, from the Comptroller General of the United States, the chief accountant, to Dr. Robert Butler, a leader in the field of aging, announced that the country is “not ready” for this huge demographic group. I felt that the first thing I should do when I returned home was to scurry to my financial planner. I heard the message of individual accountability and the “don’t plan on the government to be there for you” theme. As we get older, think Katrina and be prepared.

The conference introduced even jaded professionals like me to innovative ideas coming our way. We discovered new programs to encourage volunteerism, now called “civic engagement.” We learned how in Europe, caregivers for children and youth earn Social Security credits. We heard about how a person’s health and longevity work together to create personal wealth. Speakers stressed how obesity and sedentary activities drain both the country’s resources and a person’s life energy. We saw how, if their presence at the WHCoA was an indicator, big business is paying attention to the upcoming tidal wave and they want a piece of the action. They courted us with food, drinks, and slick publicity packets along with tables full of trinkets from which we could choose our favorite Made in China take-away.

Attendees were treated to ideas about how technology will help ease our later years. The Center for Aging Technologies, a national coalition of technology, aging, university and government representatives, showed attendees how we will use technology. It will help us with smart homes, sensors, medical co-ordination, and family-to-senior-to-doctor communication.

We learned how innovative design can be used to help community planners, older drivers and home owners. The National Endowment for the Arts has long advocated for Universal Design. So, when the resolution to “Encourage community designs to promote livable communities that enable aging in place” landed in the top 50, Paula Terry of the National Endowment for the Arts, said she was “thrilled! It’s wonderful that the delegates recognized the value of design that works throughout your life, from childhood into one’s oldest years. Hopefully this resolution will encourage builders, city planners and consumers to incorporate universal design into new construction, when it only adds 2-4%, instead of relying on retrofitting which costs upwards of 20-27%.”

The arts were also represented. During my 25+ years in Senior Theatre, I’ve seen performers flourish and bloom from being on stage. I’ve read their letters, cards and emails – all stashed in bulging shoeboxes – telling me how theatre changed their lives. For the first time, we now have a statistical study that scientifically proves the benefits. The research was the impetus for a conference resolution, to “Increase awareness of the positive physical and psychological impact that arts participation can have on Older Americans.” Sadly, this resolution along with the need for intergenerational activities and resources for public libraries were all dismissed when the delegates voted.

But we in the arts are a hearty sort. We keep beating the drum. The arts appeared in style with a special Arts and Creativity reception that featured Marvin Hamlisch. After working to encourage music resources for children, he turned his attention to promote arts and aging. The space came alive with wall size murals created by older artists in a centerpiece exhibit along with music and speakers that included Dr. Gene Cohen from George Washington University who spoke about the landmark study on Creativity and Aging. He reinforced another continual theme of the conference, to turn an elder’s ‘leisure into legacy’ and urged attendees to use the arts to create their legacy.

The three-day event was not all hearts and flowers. Prior to the event, there was widespread disappointment that the people who would chart this important direction for the future did not include leaders in the field of aging. In fact, the delegates were political appointees, often novices to the field. Knowing this, I was not surprised when I heard elevator chat like, “My, isn’t it nice to learn so much about old people.”

Attendees were also disappointed that President Bush did not address the group – the first President not to appear at his own White House Conference on Aging. Instead, he held a photo op at a gated retirement community for upscale residents to promote his Medicare drug program. Perhaps he sensed that many of the delegates expressed concern about the design and the big-business approach to the program. Attendees also voiced heavy opposition to privatizing Social Security.

Novices or not, delegates grumbled that the resolutions were handed to them. They couldn’t make changes from the floor, speak to the whole body or address particular concerns. The delegates were only asked for their input one time – to vote on their 50 favorite resolutions. Many felt it was a closed, planned session and said they felt they were “merely window dressing.”

Shut out of important decisions, a running theme of the conference was what term should be used when speaking about older adults. This tired old debate pitted words like “elders” against “seniors” vs. “seasoned” and “my timers.” The problem isn’t with the term. The problem is that ageism in America is a rampant problem. Our short-sighted vision forces us to dismiss large number of our culture who could be contributing members of the society. Age discrimination forces mature workers out of the work force, making younger workers carry a heavier Social Security burden. If the culture valued older adults and their contribution to the culture, there would be no problem as to what to call the group. Baby boomers, who protested the way things were when they were young, will be called upon to fight the age discrimination battle. No matter what you call older adults, ageism needs to join the other ‘isms’ and be not only politically incorrect, but wrong.

It was the final day of the conference. I had learned my way around the lobby but still was confused by the disconnect between the conference results and a senior’s true reality. The arts would come to my rescue to provide clarity. After the healthy lunch where the American Heart Association stroked, nourished, and gave us yes, more trinkets, we were introduced to the Levine School of Music Senior Chorale. Dressed in black with all sorts of bangles, the group of 100 plus men and women between age 56 and 93 transformed the audience from silent to spine tingling enthusiasm. Their intense facial expressions were projected onto 30′ large jumbo screens scattered around the room. From “Shenandoah,” and “American Hymn,” to the concluding holiday songs, you could tell as their director had told us moments before, “this group is way past bingo!”

I found it interesting that the arts are always “not a priority,” as a member of the WHCoA Advisory Committee told me earlier in the meeting. Yet, when you want to move a crowd with an emotional exit, what do you use? You use the arts. It’s because at any age, the arts stimulate and touch us in ways that speakers, statistics and facts just can’t reach. The arts motivate and inspire. They encourage people of any age to reach for the stars. They bind us together as humans, cultures, citizens. Though the facts that emerged from the White House Conference on Aging were confusing, the arts never are. They’re a straight arrow – directly to your heart…and when seniors are the archers, the arrows whiz faster to even brighter targets. The delegates left the room and departed to return to their ‘real’ lives, humming the message that artists had so gracefully placed on the airwaves, not of illness but of life.

Bonnie L. Vorenberg is the author of Senior Theatre Connections and President of ArtAge Publications. Turn to its Senior Theatre Resource Center for a complete collection of plays, books, materials and workshops for the mature performer. Call 800-858-4998 for a free newsletter, email, or visit online at ArtAge helps seniors be stars on stage!

Copyright 2005

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