Whcoa Vets Raise Concern, Hopes about 2005 Conclave

Article excerpt

"I have a dream," declared go-year-old Arthur Flemming at the 1995 White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) with a purposeful allusion to Martin Luther King, "a dream that this nationa) community will not only live up to the obligations that it has at the present time, but. . . will look forward, not backward, as far as helping our people deal with the hazards and vicissitudes of life."

Flemming's speech was "my favorite moment," Robert N. Butler, who chaired the 1995 WHCOA Advisory Committee, recently told Aging Today. Jon Pynoos, a delegate and expert observer at the once-a-decade conference, recalled that Flemming received "the loudest and longest standing ovation of any speaker at the conference. I show the videotape of his speech to my students in public policy" at the University of Southern California's Andrus Gerontology Center.


It is widely agreed among those attending the 1995 WHCOA that the otherwise busy and workman-like conference suddenly came to life with a flash of vision-an aging society seen as something more than a prioritized list of policy and program resolutions: Flemming's "national community." Flemming, who had been secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Eisenhower, was instrumental in creating the first WHCOA in 1961, which he chaired. He continued to be an inspiring advocate for elders' rights until he died in 1996.

Butler and Pynoos are among a group of prominent veterans of the 1995 event who were asked by Aging Today for their review of the past conference and their thoughts on the 2005 WHCOA to be held in Washington, D.C., Dec. 11-14.

The 1995 delegates debated and voted on more than ioo resolutions, with the 50 highest vote-getters being adopted and sent to Congress and the White House. Some were drafted by the WHCOA Public Policy Committee, often using language recommended by people who had convened during the previous two years at more than 1 ,000 WHCOA miniconferences and related events around the United States. The 2005 conference has involved about 400 preconference events.


"The 1995 WHCOA was intended to be a real people's democracy in action," said Fernando Torres-Gil, who oversaw that conference as U.S. Assistant secretary of Aging. A total of 2,259 delegates were charged with "formulating recommendations and an action plan for the following decade," said Torres-Gil, now acting dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. He will attend this year's WHCOA as a delegate-appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger, R-Calif.

In 1995, though, "a surprising development influenced those objectives: the Republican takeover of the Congress and the 'Contract With America,'" Torres-Gil said, referring to the GOP document that promised, among other things, to reduce the size of government, including entitlement programs.

Richard Browdie, then Pennsylvania secretary of Aging and chair of that state's 1995 WHCOA delegation, remembered that the Contract With America, devised by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., generated a sense of crisis among delegates about efforts to shrink or slow government spending. "The result was a powerful affirmation of support for the safety net of Social security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act," he said. In addition, Browdie, who now heads the nonprofit long-term care provider Benjamin Rose in Cleveland, said that delegate support of aiding families in community-based care helped lead to passage of the National Family Caregiver Support Program.


What has changed in a decade? Besides enactment of the modest caregiversupport program, leaders in aging interviewed for this article noted a marked increase in dementia research; significant movement from institutional toward community-based care; a widening spectrum of services available to elders needing assistance; and a new emphasis on health promotion, active lifestyles and personal responsibility for one's health. …