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Housing, Other Issues Missing From Conference On Aging Meeting


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One of the best measures of a country is how it treats its older citizens. And by that measure, the United States has a lot to be proud of - Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security - some of our greatest triumphs of this - as a nation.

SIMON: President Obama earlier this week at the White House Conference on Aging. The event takes place once every 10 years. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging. She was at the White House conference and joins us now for our ongoing conversation that we call 1 in 5, for the one-fifth of the U.S. population that will be 65 years old or more in 15 years. Ina, thanks for being with us.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Conference occurs once a decade - how significant is it?

JAFFE: Well, Scott, that depends on which conference on aging you're talking about. The original one in 1961, that's been credited with creating the momentum that resulted in the passage of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act just a few years later.

SIMON: Medicare, of course, very familiar to millions of Americans. I'm not sure about the Older Americans Act though.

JAFFE: It actually covers a huge range of services that are supposed to keep older adults independent and healthy for as long as possible. Probably the most famous one is Meals on Wheels. The act also included a mandate to have this Conference on Aging every 10 years. But Congress hasn't reauthorized the Older Americans Act since 2011. The Senate voted to do it just a couple of days ago, but it still has to go to the House so still not reauthorized.

SIMON: But the White House decided to have the conference anyway.

JAFFE: Right, but they got no money from Congress to do it. So it was not the big deal event that past conferences have been, with thousands of delegates from around the country spending a couple of days debating and voting on policy. This conference was just one day with 200 invited guests listening to speeches and panel discussions.

SIMON: Forgive the cliche; Rome wasn't built in a day. What can you get done at a White House Conference on Aging in just one day?

JAFFE: (Laughter) Good question. They had to limit it to just four topic areas, retirement security, technology, elder abuse - mainly of the financial sort - and healthy aging. But a lot of important things were left out. There was very little conversation about housing or transportation or issues important to minority and LGBT communities.

SIMON: And any major initiatives on the scale of Meals on Wheels?

JAFFE: Well, not on that scale, perhaps. The administration did use the conference to roll out a bunch of new policy initiatives, regulations that would make it easier to save for retirement, money to train more geriatric care workers and elder abuse prosecutors. The list runs to 10 pages. And, Scott, it's not that these things are insignificant, but really most of them are the kinds of things that would usually be announced in a press release.

SIMON: How many people were there?

JAFFE: Two-hundred. The administration did try and involve more people, though, through regional forums leading up to the conference and through guess what else?

SIMON: Social media platforms? Twitter? Facebook?

JAFFE: The Internet, definitely. The event was live-streamed. You could watch it on your laptop, or you could attend one of a few hundred watch parties around the country. I scientifically sampled photos of these parties posted on Twitter. And some of them were attended by hundreds of people, apparently, some by just a handful. And then there was the watch party hosted by the Senior Citizens of Kodiak, Alaska.

PAT BRANSON: We had one person show up.

SIMON: I guess you don't have to worry about a lot of refreshments then, do you?

JAFFE: (Laughter) Nevertheless, Pat Branson, the executive director of the Senior Citizens of Kodiak, was kind of disappointed. She had been a delegate to the two previous Conferences on Aging, and she says live streaming was really no substitute.

BRANSON: That interaction and finding out what other people are doing to provide solutions to some of the dilemmas or problems that they might have was missing because there was no dialogue back and forth.

SIMON: Ina Jaffe covers aging for NPR. She joined us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Ina, thanks so much.

JAFFE: Good to be with you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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