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White House Conference on Aging brings urgent issues to the fore

Aruna Bhuta, left, and Lynn Kimball watch the White House Conference on Aging over the Internet and projected on a large screen on July 13. Kimball is executive director of Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington, where the two were watching the event. Bhuta is a volunteer and a member of the Washington State Council on Aging. (Jesse Tinsley)
Aruna Bhuta, left, and Lynn Kimball watch the White House Conference on Aging over the Internet and projected on a large screen on July 13. Kimball is executive director of Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington, where the two were watching the event. Bhuta is a volunteer and a member of the Washington State Council on Aging. (Jesse Tinsley)

Perhaps the most successful outcome from last week’s White House Conference on Aging was reminding people that America needs to plan for an aging population because the baby boomers are already arriving and demanding services.

“It’s happening now,” said Lynn Kimball, executive director of Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington. “We’ve seen it in the last few years, more calls coming in.”

Each day, 10,000 baby boomers turn age 65. By 2029, when all the baby boomers will be 65 or older, more than 20 percent of the nation’s population will be 65 or older, reports the U.S. Census Bureau.

Kimball caught parts of the one-day conference, which her office live-streamed. Staff and volunteers also watched some of the presentations that included a speech by President Barack Obama and top health care officials and advocates. The four main topics were ensuring retirement security, promoting healthy aging, providing long-term services and supports, and protecting older Americans from exploitation, abuse and neglect.

Unlike previous White House Conferences on Aging, which happen every 10 years, there was no participation from state aging councils or other advocacy groups and experts. Congress didn’t fund the conference so there was no money to bring delegates. Instead there were watch parties, tweets, and questions delivered via Facebook.

Kimball said the conference didn’t feel inclusive and there wasn’t much chance for feedback or discussion. It was more like the federal government presenting panels. Yet she said she heard lots of good information, especially a focus on improving caregiving and involving multiple generations in aging – both in planning for their own aging and socializing or working with seniors.

Phillip Lemley, a member of the Washington State Council on Aging that reports to the governor, watched the conference with three other people at a watch party in Richland, where he serves as mayor pro tem. He would rather have attended the conference and been able to discuss issues with the movers and shakers. He hopes discussion doesn’t fade away and instead concrete plans and programs come from the once-a-decade gathering.

“The biggest thing that caught my ear was that we must change the prospect of aging from fear to optimism,” Lemley said. “That’s really a profound statement.”

Both Lemley and Kimball participated in listening sessions in the months prior to the conference and helped craft recommendations from Washington state.

The White House organized listening sessions across the country, including April 2 in Seattle. The recommendations came mostly from an October session held by the Washington Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the Washington State Council on Aging. The groups meet jointly each year to prioritize and prepare for the upcoming legislative session. Yet this time they also created a recommendations report for the White House Conference on Aging.

The state recommendations are much more specific and in-depth than the discussions July 13, where there was a tight time schedule.

No matter what national policy or discussion comes from the conference, Kimball said, it’s really up to each state and community to prioritize what needs to happen for healthy aging to occur.

In Eastern Washington, one of the top priorities – which was also discussed at the conference – is including older residents as a key demographic. That means keeping them involved in the community and giving them a voice.

Part of the conference discussion focused on intergenerational activities such as having millennials connect with baby boomers. Another idea is to teach young students to have a personal longevity plan and question what their lives will look like at age 65, 75 and 100.

That’s all part of taking the fear out of aging and making the most of the opportunities it presents, said Lemley, who at 74 says he doesn’t feel old. He’s on countless committees and boards, works out daily and only sees doctors when he volunteers at the hospital each week.

Yet he said there are many seniors who aren’t as lucky and need more help and services. And as the population grows, he views the needs as “overwhelming.”

That was one of aging advocates’ criticisms before the conference, fearing that the talks woudn’t include the true diversity of aging including varying racial backgrounds and incomes as well as education levels.

One important need in Spokane, as in many towns, is for more affordable senior housing, especially for the low-income.

Kimball said local governments need to view seniors as part of the community and give them a voice. That in part means having mixed use neighborhoods with senior and low-income housing in addition to single-family. This also increases socialization, she said.

“That’s probably one of our biggest challenges is helping clients find stable housing,” she said.

Another big topic both locally and nationally is the need to pay and respect caregivers and home-care workers in addition to family caregivers. Currently, home-care workers are excluded from overtime pay, which is a federal issue.

Preventing elder fraud and abuse is also a large concern in Spokane and across the nation.

Lemley said he hopes the conference isn’t just talk.

“It’s important we not stop now and keep the dialogue (going) and make something happen,” he said.

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