“One of the best measures of a country is how it treats its older citizens.”
“We have to work to do more to ensure that every older American has the resources and support they need to thrive.”
There were a lot of hackneyed slogans at the seminal meeting of the once-in-a-decade White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) – including the above observations by President Barack Obama. U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez observed that “age is a state of mind.” Assistant Secretary of Aging Kathy Greenlee issued a memorable pronouncement that “a good old age is too good to lose.”
Innumerable middle-aged mostly-federal bureaucrats fawned about “this momentous day” and “this extraordinary conference” and a bevy of “experts” attempted to hawk products and services to viewers listening via the internet (i.e., Uber, Peapod Grocery Delivery, Eversave Technology, AARP brand partners,, etc.).
Greenlee was the moderator of the elder justice panel, which largely focused on the financial exploitation of older Americans. She was harshly critical of paid caregivers who financially exploited a veteran acquaintance, the perpetrator of a scam that targeted a grandparent, and a crooked financial planner who ripped off two older Americans. She never mentioned the mostly anonymous Wall Street pirates who were never prosecuted for stealing the homes and retirement savings of literally millions of older Americans during the Great Recession (2007 – ).
As expected, there was no discussion about the fact that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 offers age discrimination victims far less protection than Title VII provides to victims of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and national origin. There was no discussion about systemic and epidemic age discrimination in employment that condemns millions of Americans to poverty or near poverty in their final decades.
We Need to Challenge Deeply-Ingrained Ageist Stereotypes and Systemic Age Discrimination.
Many speakers portrayed elders as if they are incompetent and in need of government protection, rather than as a diverse group of individuals who span a 40-year age spectrum. Some speakers even used the term “elderly,” which many older people loathe and which certainly does not describe 65-year-old long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad.
In addition to addressing age discrimination in employment, I would liked to have heard a discussion about ageist stereotypes in the media and research on age-based implicit bias that documents overwhelming bias against older Americans. The United States is hardly the best place in the world to age – it is number eight on the Global Age Watch Index of 2014. Why didn’t the Conference look to see how other countries foster positive aging? Just for the record, Norway claimed the top spot on the Global Age Watch Index because it has well-developed organizations for the elderly, a long history of state welfare and strong social media campaigns that create public awareness of age-related issues.
Sadly this WHCOA was not destined to be a ground-breaking event. It was a poorly-funded WHCOA “lite,” which, in itself, is a sorry statement about the state of aging in America in 2015.