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A Bush-less White House Conference on Aging

Participant Robert Hudson, an SSW professor, decries “scripted” program

Delegates to the recent White House Conference on Aging sent stern messages to President Bush by adopting nonbinding position statements calling for scrapping the new Medicare drug law and rejecting any diversion of Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts. But Bush did not receive the messages directly — he was the first president not to attend a Conference on Aging held during his term (the conferences take place about once a decade — this year’s was the fifth).


BU School of Social Work Professor Robert Hudson, chair of the department of social welfare policy, attended this year’s conference as a delegate. On his return, he told BU Today his views on how the conference reflected the federal government’s outlook toward older Americans:

The 2005 White House Conference on Aging was carefully scripted and designed to deflect delegates from putting forth recommendations that call for added investments by the federal government on behalf of older Americans. [Because the President did not attend,] the administration’s position appears to be that the conference and its recommendations should fade into the sunset, with few remembering that it had taken place.


Reining in delegates was accomplished through two methods. The first was keeping them in plenary sessions, filled with speakers, with no questions or other forms of participation allowed. The second was to funnel them into “implementation strategy sessions” around the 50 most popular resolutions selected earlier by delegates. These sessions were run by “facilitators” under strict instructions to get the delegates to cluster implementation statements under the various resolutions while prohibiting them from revising or revisiting the resolutions being discussed. (Delegates did not “vote”; they expressed “preferences.”) “Issue experts” were also present to make available, presumably, disinterested information. There was disagreement about how neutral some of these interpretations were.


The second theme was to minimize the role of the federal government in planning for the aging of the American population. Speakers repeatedly hit on the themes of “family and community roles” in assisting seniors, and stressed that it’s now critical for baby boomers to take individual responsibility in planning for their own retirement. Thus, in discussing the new Medicare prescription drug plan, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid called for “conversations” across America to help make the program work better. He faced an awkward moment when booing followed his statement that the Medicare hotline was up and working with no delays or waiting. The administration has even spun the rampant confusion surrounding this program by suggesting that making adult children help their parents figure out the confusing array of options is an opportunity for “intergenerational bonding.” Delegates did not seem persuaded that discussing co-payments for Norvasc and Lisinopril over Thanksgiving turkey was an especially heartwarming family moment. The exhibit area played into these same themes, with only high-tech companies exhibiting, and the theme here boiling down largely to, “You, your Internet connection, and your daughter working you through the ins and outs of aging and long-term care.”


In short, this conference, if recalled at all, will be remembered for emphasizing nongovernmental roles in dealing with the issues raised by an aging population. Indeed, it might well be dubbed the “Your-Federal-Government-Is-Out-of-Here White House Conference on Aging of 2005.”