This post was originally featured on the Declaration For Independence blog.
Convened each decade since the 1960s, the White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) is the leading forum for identifying and advancing actions to improve the quality of life for older Americans. In advance of Older Americans Month this May, we sat down with Dr. Yanira Cruz, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA), to explore the WHCOA’s proposed priorities for 2015 and others critical for ensuring equal opportunity to learn and develop skills, engage in productive work and participate fully in the community across the lifespan.
We talked Conference, the importance of being responsive to the interests of a diverse aging population, and how to help set the strategic table for WHCOA 2015 (spoiler: it’s town halls).
myDFI: What is the White House Conference on Aging?
Yanira Cruz: Every 10 years since the 1960s, the White House has held a Conference on Aging to identify and advance actions to improve the quality of life of older Americans. The 2015 conference is a unique opportunity – not only because the forum is available only once every decade, but also the convergence of several anniversaries important to our society: the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act (OAA), as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security and the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This creates a very real opportunity not only to look ahead to the issues shaping the future landscape for older Americans but also to recognize and learn from the policies of the past and programs of today.
myDFI: How is the conference organized?
Cruz: Conference processes have been set under federal law. In the past, Congress has determined through public processes (i.e., legislation) its form, structure and priorities as part of the authorization of the Older Americans Act (OAA) – the single most important piece of legislation for older Americans. The OAA is long overdue for reauthorization and the pending bill we do have does not address the conference. As a result, a congressional framework – including the priorities and agenda, etc. – is not in place for this conference.
myDFI: What does that mean for the conference’s priorities and agenda – how will the table be set, so to speak?
Cruz: It means the White House will set the agenda. They have committed to engaging with stakeholders and seeking broad public input to inform the process, including a national tour of regional listening sessions and a strong focus on virtual ways that older Americans and their families and caregivers can participate – such as webinars, online policy briefs and a blog.
myDFI: It sounds like stakeholders have had the opportunity to inform the agenda. What has come of their engagement and feedback so far?
Cruz: While there is more to inform and engage on, the conference announced four key priorities last July, the result of prior listening sessions with older Americans and leaders in the aging community. The priorities include: retirement security, healthy aging, long-term services and supports and elder justice.
myDFI: Putting aside policy jargon, what do these priorities mean in practical terms – to older Americans and their families and caregivers – and how do we see those interests come through in the priorities?
Cruz: This is a good question. Each of these is an important issue, and organizations like the NHCOA and its allies already focus public policy and programming efforts along these priorities because they have a real, tangible meaning and impact on the lives of older Americans:
1. Retirement security. In practical terms, retirement security often translates into lack of food, shelter, transportation, and prescription drugs. More and more, people get to retirement age and find they cannot leave the workforce because they need a steady stream of income to cover these basic needs. Many scrap the idea of retirement altogether, reinventing themselves to keep on working. This is especially important for women who are often heads of household and have made less than their male counterparts throughout their years of labor. In addition, they are less likely to have contributed to retirement savings plans or accounts. Because many of these women rely on Social Security as their sole source of income in retirement, the equation never plays out in their favor.
Therefore, we now see more and more diverse women launching informal businesses in their later years to supplement whatever retirement income they have, particularly in the service and food sectors – catering, home cleaning and caregiving. The issue of retirement security is not seeing how we can support seniors who already face the struggles of making ends meet, but also preparing future generations of older Americans to enter their golden years with retirement security. Needless to say, this is an important issue and we are very excited that it is a leading priority for the conference.
2. Healthy aging. This is another important issue and, well, it is a passion of mine. I believe health is a human being’s biggest asset. If one has health, everything else is able to fall into place. Without good health, challenges can become impossible obstacles. In regards to healthy aging, the conference will focus on how to keep communities and society in the best possible health given the medical events and the progress we have made in recent history. Particularly, how we can ensure older Americans maintain their health and well-being as they age. For example, this includes studies and potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, a hot topic in many circles right now.
3. Long-term services and supports. With the advancement of health and technology, we are able to live longer. However, it requires that we have an adequate support system in place as we age and deal with changing physical, mental and emotional realities. The promise of comprehensive access to long-term services and supports (LTSS) as we age, live with a disability, or develop a disability has not been fully realized. And the reality is that most of us will eventually develop or already have a disability. It is a complex conversation that isn’t easy to have, but one that we need to address. Therefore, I commend the conference for putting it on the table. The Independent Living philosophy must be part of any dialogue on LTSS. We must support older Americans so they can age in place where they live, eat, and gather and have access to LTSS when they need it.
Another important part of this conversation is the workforce question: who is going to support us in our older age, as we potentially develop disabilities? There is a shortage of direct support professionals and of specialists in the field of gerontology. In the next 20 years, there will be more older adults than young not just in the U.S., but across the globe. This will force a dramatic shift in how we deliver health care and provide LTSS to older adults and those with a disability. I hope that part of this discussion will include the need, and lack of, cultural competence standards. Will the next generation of service providers and gerontologists have the cultural (and linguistic) competency to navigate and support the diversity of cultures of our society? I think this is an important, complex and exciting topic that will benefit from broader conversation.
4. Elder justice. This issue is hitting some communities heavily. Often times, older adults, are more likely to be victims of fraud and abuse, specifically those who are isolated, don’t have relatives nearby and/or are more elderly. The high incidence and level of fraud within diverse communities is both disturbing and appalling. Certain communities particularly are hard hit; such as southern Texas, in particular the area of McAllen, Texas. Another notorious hotbed of fraud activity is southern Florida, especially Miami. One of the main reasons scammers seek out these victims is precisely because they are isolated and lack the knowledge, information or know-how to identify and report these injustices. It is necessary for us, as a nation, to really crack down on the fraud and abuse that targets older Americans as victims – whether it be healthcare fraud or otherwise.
myDFI: That’s quite a list, but are there other priorities the conference should be focusing on?
Cruz: Yes. There are two other areas not listed here that I believe are important: housing and transportation. While one can say that they are related in some way to all four priorities— and very well could be included in the conference— I would like to see particular attention on these two issues, housing in particular.
I think housing merits its own attention. The demand for affordable, quality, age appropriate housing is growing each day. Waiting lists to rent a Section 202 housing unit keep getting longer — sometimes a decade long. What older adult can wait ten years, and even if they had the luxury of time, where would they live in the mean time? As the wave of Baby Boomers continues to enter retirement age, and the aging population continues to outpace the young, the housing demand will only skyrocket. Moreover, the U.S. aging network is not prepared to face this reality. Our current infrastructure is not prepared to cater to the aging population it is intended to serve. I would have liked to have seen this addressed separately.
myDFI: Is there a way to ensure these issues are folded into the conference’s dialogue?
Cruz: I think they will be, but I hope we can address housing as well as transportation at some point on their own as well. On our end, NHCOA will be conducting listening sessions in different regions of the country to ensure older Americans and their families, caregivers and allies have the opportunity to share their thoughts on issues related to the WHCOA priorities, as well as housing and transportation. The schedule of listening sessions includes Miami on June 4, Dallas on June 25, and Los Angeles on August 18. NHCOA will compile this data and present a report of recommendations during our annual National Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. this November.
myDFI: These sessions provide another opportunity for older Americans and their allies to help set the strategic table for the conference. Are there others?
Cruz: Absolutely – there are a few ways. The conference itself is hosting a national tour of regional listening sessions throughout the country, including ones held in Tampa in February, Phoenix in Arizona and, most recently, Seattle and Cleveland. The next one is taking place in Boston on May 28. In addition to these in-person meetings, the conference is considering Google Hangouts as virtual forum option – I’m not sure how this will work out, but they are very interested in making sure as many voices get input into the process.
myDFI: What about during the conference – is there a role for older adults and their allies then?
Cruz: While I think the conference will be very different from previous years – for example, it will take place at the White House, which is a smaller venue – public engagement is central to the process and I expect there will be ways to participate from afar as well. Beyond webinars and Google Handouts, they’re exploring other virtual strategies to ensure more voices are heard. As we await those details, it may be easiest to sign-up to receive updates through the conference’s mailing list, plus follow the NHCOA web site.