I Was at the White House Conference on Aging
Well, sort of. I wasn’t at THE White House Conference on Aging (which is to be held in July): I was at the fifth and final regional consultation forum leading up to the actual Conference. I was recommended for the Conference by SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). My job was to bring up the particular needs and realities of LGBTQ people, to inject the queer into the conversation. I applied and was accepted, putting down my “affiliation” as writer.
It was held at the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute, sitting with sibling congeniality next door to the JFK Library on the University of Massachusetts campus. The main hall is a replica of the US Senate chamber, holding 100 comfy seats with desks, ringed by a balcony of stiff observer seats. Lacking a red dot on my name tag, I was ordered upstairs. AARP was the co-sponsor and provided copious, decent snacks and lunch. Instead of just cookies at the break, for instance, they also offered energy bars and trail mix.
There were two panels filled with worthies to start off the day. I was struck by their demographics:
**Taken as a whole, the speakers were a lot younger than the group they were talking about.
**There were no “users” on the panels, only “professionals.”
**The majority of the speakers were white women.
Here’s a short report of my personal experience of trying to inject LGBTQ content, followed by some salient points from some of the speakers.
I had prepared my question and dutifully copied it out on the postcard that came in our pack, but the volunteer usher who collected it stood around in the balcony with a bunch in her hand instead of handing it in for consideration. Luckily Lisa Krinsky's (Director of Boston’s terrificLGBT Aging Project) question about cultural competency and treating LGBT people with dignity did get asked.
In our breakout session on Elder Justice we were divided into six smaller groups to come up with a priority/challenge/solution. I talked a lot about breaking the isolation of LGBTQ seniors, especially those who are closeted, and about other marginalized groups. I saw to it that I was one of the people reporting back to the room to ensure that LGBTQ concerns get written down. However, in the end the leaders homogenized the varied concerns of the six smaller groups into one single “most important” priority. That is, they made mush out of nuanced issues. You know: more resources; more public awareness. Blah blah.
In the final, most interesting plenary session, filmed "for the White House," they opened the mic and at last “the people" were able to speak. It was enlightening to hear from the participants – and to finally see the passion activists have about their varied issues. One nursing home resident basically said, “Nothing about us without us.” A woman spoke about encouraging seniors to prepare for Guardianship. We learned that half of people over 65 live in communities with no public transportation whatsoever. And that 90% of trips taken by folks 65+ are by car, leaving them devastated when they can no longer drive.
I had snuck into the main chamber in order to be positioned to make a jump for the mic. I spoke about isolation, marginalization, and the necessity to use increased resources to reach groups like isolated LGBTQs and undocumented immigrants. I talked about the LGBTQ generation before mine – people who had never been “out” in their lives – and how they would experience senior services/institutions. I talked about people of color and others who did not necessarily see the social worker or the criminal justice system as a place to turn to. I regret that I neglected to raise two important aging issues: sexuality and HIV.
Afterwards about six or seven gay people came up to personally thank me – and I refrained from asking them why they had not themselves spoken up. Two (assumedly naive) people said, How great that Obama is going to see this footage and hear what you said.
In the end, I felt I had successfully accomplished a bit of my mission.
However, queers are decidedly not on the radar of the main speakers and the bigwigs, to say the least. Issues of poverty, race, gender, and sexuality were hardly referenced by the experts (except for one panelist, Jeanette Takamura, Dean of Columbia University Social Work). No one said the word "ageism" until the end of the day. That was disheartening.
Overview of the Speakers
The day’s Superstar is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who scores the only two standing ovations – bringing a spark of passion to a day that will be very “conferency.”
The first comes the moment she opens the door and enters – people jump and cheer – and the second is for saying, “This is not the moment to talk about cutting Social Security; this is the moment to talk about strengthening Social Security.” In between she champions Medicare and Medicaid, tells us that 1/3 of all people near retirement have no savings, and raises the alarm on conflicts of interest among financial people selling retirement plans and getting kickbacks. I am most gratified by her point that beefing up Social Security “is not only about honoring our promises to our seniors, it is also about honoring our promises to our young people” since all of us are aging. We learned that from the disability movement: improved accessibility helps everyone.
Caregiver (and Union member) Kindalay Cummings-Akers, introduces Congressperson Stephen Lynch (both pictured on left), after talking about the real challenges of her profession, not the least the restrictions by Medicare on who gets care at home. Lynch, himself a champion of elder services and of improved employment circumstances for carers, looks at the implications of our increased life expectancy.
Therese McMillan, from the US Department of Transportation, gives a fascinating peek at how good public transportation can make a difference in the lives of older people. When seniors were asked what they’d most want near their house, the majority said “bus stop.” People who regularly use public transportation walk more than those who drive, countering the sedentary lifestyle which she says is “the biggest threat to health.” (Writers are done for!) Poor neighborhoods are often “food deserts” – where fast food and liquor stores dominate: public transportation helps people get to fresh fruit/vegs. I love her concept of “extending the ladders of opportunity”: mobile seniors help others through volunteering, childcare, etc.
We are told by Maine’s Judith Shaw that elders who are victims of abuse are three times more likely to die in the three years following their victimization than their general group. John Friedman of Brown University says that a generation ago three out of four workers had a work pension: now three out of four don’t.
I am a bit put off by the injection of rapacious corporations into the proceedings. We are subjected to a CVS “retail pharmacist” and a Bank of America/Merrill Lynch (!!) spokesman bragging about how well they take care of their senior customers. (The two corporate representatives were both men of color – the only ones on the panels.) I was unhappy, too, with remarks by Brigitte Madrian, a “public policy and corporate management” professor from Harvard, who couldn’t bear the idea that people were able to tap into their own retirement savings before retirement – as if people in crisis are frivolous.
Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, pointed out that 2015 is a big anniversary year: the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security. The department’s present emphasis is on the prevention of heart attacks / strokes, the #1 USA killer.
Two hours into the day and there has been no mention of the impact on aging of poverty, gender, race, or sexuality. Disability was only mentioned in terms of transportation.
The second panel, including two participants of color, consists of all physicians (in senior roles) and one PhD. We’ll start with her. Jeanette Takamura (on left) is the first woman Dean at the School of Social Work at Columbia University. She is the bright light of the day for me. She’s got an impressive CV of significant work around older people, including the development and enactment of a modernized Older Americans Act. Takamura is the first to mention women and the LGBT community – and also the first to raise the crucial issue of political will on the federal, state, and local levels. She says the money needs to follow the person. She points out that by 2043, the majority of Americans will be people of color. I am surprised to learn that private (for-profit) long-term care companies are not expanding: they’re contracting. Later, in response to the question of the LGBT Aging Project, Takamura talks about the “micro-aggressions” people of color and gay people suffer all their lives and gives a “macro-aggression” example from her own life. (“She speaks English so well!”)
Ellen Flaherty from the Dartmouth Center for Health and Aging talks about rural elders. Rural communities are older and more isolated than urban ones. She is full of suggested solutions: For long-term care, shift Medicaid spending from nursing homes to home care. Improve the conditions of caregivers. And use technology for fall detectors, for Tai Chi lessons via Skype, etc. I am surprised at her emphasis on solutions using the Internet because my experience of rural connectivity has not been impressive.
Every profession has its jargon and I repeatedly heard two buzz phrases new to me: “health confidence” and “activated patients.” I can only guess at their meaning. I fear “health confidence” is somehow a similar construct to “food insecurity,” which means “We don’t know where the hell our next meal is coming from.” As for “activated patients,” your guess is as good as mine.
Finally, thank you to the three brilliant people from the LGBTQ seniors movement who got me involved. Terri Clark forwarded me the Conference announcement. Terri has encouraged my involvement in this work from the time I met her in Philadelphia where she does education work around HIV and also around senior sexuality. Serena Worthington (Director of National Field Initiatives at SAGE), who ran the LGBT Elder day-long session at the Creating Change conference in Denver with such panache, provided my recommendation. And Aaron Tax, SAGE’s Director of Federal Government Relations, sent me useful educational materials.
Here's the Conference trailer (very different optics than the session I was at):
Sue Katz is a wordsmith and rebel whose book, Lillian's Last Affair, is a collection of short stories about the love lives of older people. Visit her edgy blog Consenting Adult - where this article was also published. Sue is a regular contributor to Open Media Boston.