Politics & Policy

A Conference For The Ages

The same-old gets old.

When I told some friends that I was a delegate from New York State to the White House Conference on Aging, they laughed. “Well,” they said, “I guess you have to be really old to do that.”

Not very funny and besides, my pals, all baby boomers, are not much younger than I am. But heck, they were just displaying their “ageism.” And young or old, most people aren’t in the least ashamed to display ageism, one of the few socially acceptable prejudices left to display and still get a laugh.

But guess what?The oldest of the baby boomers, who were once assured they were going to “stay forever young, “will be turning 60 in 2006. And after that–I heard this at the conference–someone will be turning 60 every eight-and-a-half seconds for the next 18 years! And, no matter what AARP says, 60 may be the new 50, but it still isn’t the new 30.

There has been a White House Conference on Aging once every decade since the 1960s. At the D.C. conference there were delegations from each state and over 1,200 delegates , appointed by their governors, senators, and representatives, and by the conference committee itself. I was one of the New York delegates, chosen by the governor, while most of my colleagues were picked by New York’s Democratic senators and mainly Democratic representatives. Most of them were baby boomers themselves who worked for nonprofit organizations. The conference’s theme was “The Booming Dynamics of Aging,” and the newest experience on earth is the fact of an enormous mass of people getting older. Still, most delegates stayed focused on the problems of the current elderly rather than doing much thinking about the fast-approaching future, when over 77 million boomers will become seniors.

And by the way, got a new name for seniors? Parade Magazine, the Harvard School of Public Health, and MetLife are trying to come up with one. They claim that the terms “old,” “retired,” and “seniors” seem outdated. At the conference we heard a lot about “seasoned” adults. Do you like that any better? Personally, it makes me think of a leg of lamb.

The delegates were a feisty, one might even say crotchety, lot. They complained about how the conference was run and the fact that they weren’t t allowed to speak from the floor as they had at past conferences. They complained that the president didn’t attend. George W. Bush is the first President not to address a White House Conference on Aging. A few attendees heckled Sen. Larry Craig (R., Ind.), a member of the policy committee when he was talking about Social Security personal accounts. A few heckled the dinner speaker, Roger Barnett, CEO of Shaklee, for being a CEO. And the New York delegation, being the New York delegation, never stopped meeting, never stopped talking, and decided at one meeting to simply complain about almost everything.

The work of the conference was to winnow down resolutions that had been prepared by the conference’s policy committee from 78 to just 50. Then, in workshop meetings, we were charged with coming up with implementation strategies for the final 50. The top ten resolutions had to do primarily with strengthening Medicare, supporting geriatric education, and developing a long-term care program. Needless to say, at the final session in which the implementation of the resolutions was discussed, the biggest cheers were reserved for any strategies that began with “Increase Federal funding for…”

The best part of the conference was, just as it is in most such conferences, the networking opportunities of people who work in the same field but rarely get to see each other.

Idaho’s Republican Governor Dirk Kempthorne made a big hit with his speech, on long-term care solutions, even though many of the delegates did not share his party. And, to be honest, his craggy good looks were an even bigger hit with the female attendees.

The most touching moment, I thought, was at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the exhibit hall, which had some interesting technology displays, primarily from Intel. After the colors had been presented, the Star Spangled Banner began to play. Slowly, haltingly, the delegates began to join in until, finally, everyone from across the country was singing our national anthem together, in full voice.

But what wasn’t discussed at the conference, like an elephant in the middle of the room, an elephant with very gray roots that everyone pretends not to notice, was the subject of ageism. It wasn’t addressed, for example, why even those who want to help the old don’t really want to examine their own feelings about getting older.

Though everyone complained that the media almost totally ignored the conference, no one wanted to face the fact that the media is one of the primary reasons for” ageism,” because it basically ignores any subject with a tint of age about it.

Yes, Medicare, and long-term care and the need for more geriatricians are problems, but the biggest challenge of all may be how we feel about getting older in a culture that tends to ignore the old. As Pogo once said, “I am have met the enemy and they are us.” Well, during the next decade, when we meet the old it is more and more likely to be us. And then what are we going to do?

Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies’ Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.

Myrna BlythMyrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media. She is the former editor-in-chief and publishing director of Ladies’ Home Journal. She was the founding editor and ...


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