Bush on Aging: Not Now

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In the Sherlock Holmes tale of Silver Blaze, the fact that the dog didn't bark was the significant nonevent.

Last week in Washington, when more than a thousand delegates from across the country gathered at the White House Conference on Aging, the significant nonevent was that the President of the United States never showed up. George Bush's failure to appear dominated the three-day meeting. It was the first time in nearly half a century that a president has skipped the conference, which is held about every 10 years.

Despite the presidential snub -- or perhaps galvanized by it -- the conference produced a framework for social policies that broadened the scope of aging issues from services to support the frail to opportunities for the healthy to work and serve their communities. Delegates elevated mental health, transportation and long-term care as priority issues.

All the while, the conference was pulled between the parallel universes: one inside Washington where the mighty make the rules, the other one "out there," where ordinary people worry about pensions, deliver meals on wheels and take care of Alzheimer's patients.

The conference brought the two universes together. Most of the delegates represented agencies that serve older men and women. They were chosen by the White House, members of Congress and governors. The conference chairman was a Republican and the agenda was carefully scripted to emphasize the Bush themes of personal responsibility, healthy lifestyle, technological innovation and entrepreneurial solutions.

Nevertheless, the disconnect between the two universes was glaring. While delegates were debating ways to strengthen Medicare in a meeting room of the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in the District, the president went instead to a retirement community in suburban Virginia for a geezer feel-good news opportunity in which he promoted Medicare's controversial prescription drug benefit.

(A White House spokesman explained that while President Bush supported the conference and had sent Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt to speak to the delegates on his behalf, he could not attend all the conferences that he's invited to. The president felt that it was a better use of his time to highlight what the administration has done for seniors.)

Congress, too, seemed oblivious. In one ironic moment, just as the delegates made it a leading priority to increase the number of health professionals trained in geriatrics, a health committee in the House of Representatives was zeroing out of next year's federal budget a program that funded a network of 50 geriatric education centers.

"My heart is heavy," lamented Robert N. Butler, founding director of the National Institute of Aging and head of the International Longevity Center in New York.

Aging, it seems, doesn't get much respect in the nation's capital. But it should. The longevity revolution is reshaping our lives. The baby boom is turning 60, the health care system is inadequate and traditional programs for older Americans need to change. Laws must be amended to encourage working and saving, and new initiatives must come in the public and private arenas to meet the challenges -- and opportunities -- of a healthier older population.

The White House Conference on Aging is the forum to develop a blueprint of policies for the next decade. In the past, the conference has led to major initiatives, including Medicare and Medicaid. This was the fifth conference and it cost nearly $8 million, with an estimated $450,000 from private donors, the rest from taxpayers.

But even within the conference, tensions rose between delegates and organizers. The first days were loaded with speeches. (Full disclosure -- I was one of the speakers.) Many delegates grew frustrated with the controlled agenda and said they were listening too much and being listened to too little. The New York delegation made a formal complaint, raising "serious concerns about the structure, process and anticipated outcomes" of the conference.

Yet in the end, the delegates found their voices. For starters, the conference had amassed an enormous amount of data and expertise. For the past 18 months the conference had held more than 400 events around the country on such topics as creating opportunities for paid and unpaid community service, caring for caregivers, nutrition and hospice and palliative care.

In small sessions in Washington, the delegates were able to debate and propose strategies. In town-meeting style, delegates talked, shouted, listened and came to some consensus on priorities.

Most heated was a workshop on Social Security and the controversy over its privatization. Delegates clustered in groups of six. Patrick Daly of Chicago, retired from the FBI, explained his skepticism of personal accounts this way: "I was too busy chasing spies, terrorists and bank robbers to watch the stock market."

Across the table, a CPA from Texas said he was neutral. At one point, a young woman grabbed the microphone and yelled: "Privatizing Social Security is the wrong direction for America . . . the wrong direction for my generation."

After the workshops, Hal Daub -- former congressman from Nebraska, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board and advocate of allowing some personal investments in the retirement system -- shook his head. "We have to do something sooner rather than later," he said.

Delegates voted overwhelmingly to keep Social Security as is and rejected privatization as a major solution to the system's long-term solvency. At the same time, they offered alternative strategies such as raising the cap on taxed wages and putting all workers, including government workers, in the system.

In room after room, on issue after issue, delegates voted by placing blue dots on favored approaches that were displayed on posters hanging on the walls. They made jokes about "hanging dots," a reference to the "hanging chads" from the Florida ballot recount in 2000 that put George Bush in the White House.

So what if the president didn't show, the delegates seemed to say. Grass-roots democracy was taking over. "There are a lot of people who care passionately about what happens to older men and women," said Rena Iacono of Lido Beach, N.Y. "That's what this White House Conference on Aging is all about."

The final tally was a list of priorities and strategies to enhance the well-being of older people, including options for a comprehensive long-term care initiative. Among the top 20 resolutions was "the plan for accountability to sustain the momentum, public visibility and oversight of the implementation" of the conference's resolutions. In other words: the power universe of Washington may not be paying attention. But the people in the other universe will make sure the country takes action.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

back to top