I had the good fortune of representing Justice in Aging at last week’s Aging in America conference in Chicago. The annual conference, hosted by the American Society on Aging, provides an excellent opportunity to connect with leaders in the field of and learn from experts about the latest developments in the field. Six things stood out for me about his year’s conference.
Community. The aging network is truly a remarkably warm and committed community of people who care deeply about improving the lives of our nation’s older adults. Coming from a wide variety of professional backgrounds – social workers, lawyers, health and LTSS providers, and more – ASA members unite in their service to seniors. The ASA Board (starting with the remarkable Board Chair Lynn Friss Feinberg) and Staff (led by the phenomenal Bob Stein) set a wonderful tone, welcoming all members of the community and encouraging dialogue, partnership, and growth.
Determination. Working on aging issues is not easy, but boy is it important. Session after session highlighted the immense needs and challenges facing older adults in our communities across the country. I was humbled by how hard aging advocates are working to reform our health and long term services and supports (LTSS) systems, connect poor seniors to benefits, extend and improve services for diverse elders, fight Alzheimer’s, improve resources for caregivers and more. But I was also struck by how many in our community feel under-resourced, unheard by policymakers and politicians and frustrated by a lack of more visible signs of progress.
Diversity. It was inspiring to hear about so many projects that are targeting diverse senior populations. I presented with partners from SAGE, Lambda Legal, Medicare Rights Center, and National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation on how the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act has impacted LGBT older adults. The room was packed and full of energy. I saw a group from Orange County honored for their outreach to Vietnamese elders. I heard about programs that are adopting the promotores model in a wide range of elder ethnic communities. Yet, I was also struck by how much more diverse the aging professionals network needs to become to reflect the population we all serve. I know and appreciate that ASA is working strategically to expand the diversity of the field and I think we all need to do more to diversify the populations we serve, the projects we develop and the community of professionals doing the work.
Disability. In our day-to-day work, we are in constant communication and partnership with disability rights organizations. The programs that we work on – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and SSI – impact people with disabilities in many of the same ways they impact seniors. It was wonderful to see a general session at the conference dedicated to celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and exploring the connections between aging and disability. The aging network could learn so much from the civil rights, person-centered advocacy approach that the disability community has pioneered.
Advocacy. It was wonderful to meet and talk with so many conference attendees who are not only working in the system they have, but also fighting to change for the better those systems. The spirit of advocacy is alive in many members of the community who are always pushing for progress, change and improvements for the most vulnerable and underserved. A highlight for me was attending the Rosalinde Gilbert Innovations in Alzheimer’s Disease Caregiving Legacy Awards, hosted by the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation and the Family Caregiver Alliance. The reception honored exceptional advocacy efforts, including the work the California Association for Adult Day Services did to preserve Adult Day Health Care services for low-income seniors in California. It was a thrill to see Lydia Missaelides rewarded for her work and an honor for our team to be mentioned as a key part of the effort to save services for seniors in need. Go advocacy! Still, in too many sessions, presenters shared great research or reported on programs, but they were missing a call to action, a rallying cry, and an opportunity for us to use our collective voice to push for real and positive change. More of us need to bring our advocate hats into the sessions and out into the world.
Poverty. As with advocacy, in the halls, over drinks and at the infamous late night parties, I had wonderful and passionate conversations with conference attendees about our collective concern for the growing number of seniors living in poverty. Unfortunately, the word poverty was rarely uttered in the sessions I attended. When it was raised in questions from the audience, people were encouraged to not use the word or were told the issue fit into a broader conversation about the diversity of the population. At future conferences we need more focus on the seniors in the greatest economic need. They need us and failing to talk about them is a tremendous disservice to them and the legacy of our community. I know that our community cares deeply about this group, it is time for us to talk about how we as an aging advocacy community can and must work together to develop and push for programs and policies that support this group. If we don’t, who will?