Issues on the Table at the Aging Conference

More than 1,200 delegates are attending this week's White House Conference on Aging. Past conferences have led to major social change, including the creation of Medicare and Meals on Wheels. We look at what seniors are saying about the president's absence this year and other issues at the conference.

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More now on the White House Conference on Aging. There's been one conference each decade. The first, in 1961, added momentum to the push to create Medicare. In 1971, President Nixon spoke, and on the spot he doubled funding for meals programs for poor seniors. NPR's Joseph Shapiro was at the meeting today in Washington, where many seniors were disappointed they didn't see President Bush.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

Cecilia Nez is one of 1,200 delegates at the conference. She's representing the Navajo Nation. Nez is wearing a turquoise necklace over a red jacket. Because this conference was called together by the White House, she expected the president to be here.

Ms. CECILIA NEZ (Conference on Aging Delegate): What happened to him? President Bush, next time don't promise Americans, the older people--because we support you, you'd better show up.

SHAPIRO: President Bush never promised he'd speak to this group. Scott Nystrom is the executive director of the White House conference. He said the delegates would take up important work, especially to improve the health of people as they get older, and that it wouldn't matter that the president did not speak.

Mr. SCOTT NYSTROM (Executive Director, White House Conference on Aging): We all regret that he's not here, but you know, that's--sometimes that happens.

SHAPIRO: Nystrom said he hadn't been in touch with the White House about the president's Medicare speech earlier today to another group of seniors in Virginia.

Mr. NYSTROM: I haven't followed where he is. I don't--I'm not sure.

SHAPIRO: The White House did send its top officials on aging policy, including Mike Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and Mark McClellan, who runs Medicare and Medicaid. They got polite applause. They noted the Bush administration's leadership to expand Medicare to cover prescription drugs. Nystrom said this conference would be remembered for taking up issues that matter to older Americans.

Mr. NYSTROM: I think there's a lot of themes that we've gone through; one is technology. This is the first White House conference, as I understand it, that's had such a focus on technology. The focus on the baby boomers is important, I think; healthy living, fitness, nutrition.

SHAPIRO: The delegates are Republicans and Democrats. They were appointed by the president, members of Congress and governors. Delegate Bob Binstock says it probably would not have been a friendly crowd for the president.

Mr. BOB BINSTOCK (Conference on Aging Delegate; Case Western Reserve University): There's a lot of sentiment among the delegates against privatizing Social Security, which he campaigned very hard to get on the agenda and move along in the early part of this year.

SHAPIRO: Binstock's a political scientist and expert on aging policy at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. This is his third conference. He said delegates had much less chance to influence the outcome at this one.

Mr. BINSTOCK: I think it was set up to make sure that nothing that contradicted the Bush administration's priorities will come out of it.

SHAPIRO: Binstock said that's too bad because White House conferences are a rare chance to gather experts on aging from all around the country. They can have an impact on policy, but that this conference probably won't. And he says that raises a question whether the White House Conference on Aging is worth having anymore.

Mr. BINSTOCK: This is a symbolic exercise. It's a big waste of taxpayers' money, but it makes a lot of people feel good. I mean, all of us got certificates saying, `I was a delegate at the White House Conference on Aging.'

SHAPIRO: The delegates were given recommendations to vote on; most were written in vague language meant to avoid controversy. One on Medicare said simply, `Strengthen and improve the Medicare program.' Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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