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opinion | Phyllis N. Segal

White House Conference on Aging must address quality of a long life

President Obama greeted attendees at this year’s White Conference on Aging.
President Obama greeted attendees at this year’s White Conference on Aging.EPA

At 70, I’m on the national agenda. Kind of. As the White House Conference on Aging convenes this week in Washington, a fleet of experts will be talking about people my age. This once-every-decade conference aims to make recommendations to the president and Congress that “promote the dignity, health, and economic security of older Americans.” When the first WHCOA met, I was in high school; it’s no surprise that I paid no attention. On the other hand, nine days later, when President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” I listened hard.

And then, I took up his challenge. As a young lawyer, I was part of a generation of women fighting for equality — challenging discrimination in our laws, policies, and institutions. As an advocate, I worked to stem gun violence. After experiencing how litigation can impede practical solutions, I went into government to reframe approaches to labor-management conflicts. More recently, in my “encore career,” I have become a relentless advocate for national service by people of all ages, building upon the work of my late husband Eli Segal, a founder of AmeriCorps.

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Now, as someone squarely in the WHCOA cross-hairs, I wonder: Will the 2015 conference be relevant to me? That depends: Will it recognize the diversity of those who share only one thing — the number of years we’ve been alive?

As is true throughout the lifespan, one size never fits all. The experience of aging varies widely, in terms of health, attitudes, resilience and other factors. Will the 2015 WHCOA take note?

To be sure, growing older can present difficult health, housing, and transportation challenges for many, as does the burden of poverty and near-poverty. Past WHCOAs have helped build a safety net that protects older Americans, via Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the Older Americans Act. JFK attended the first conference, and became the first president to press for national health care for older adults — he knew that more than half of Americans over 65 lacked insurance. His idea became reality when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed Medicare into law.

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But what about the challenge of living with purpose — which is so powerfully connected to healthy aging?

Ironically, on the eve of the 2015 WHCOA, members of Congress have voted to slash funding for Senior Corps and AmeriCorps — ignoring the commitment in the 2008 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act to grow AmeriCorps to 270,000 members by 2017. Foster Grandparents, established in 1965, when today’s boomers were barely out of diapers, also faces deep cuts. If Congress succeeds, opportunities for young and older adults to serve our communities will shrink rather than grow.

I hope the WHCOA recognizes that “older Americans” represents a human spectrum that includes those in need as well as a large cohort of experienced people with talent, skills, and the desire to contribute rather than withdraw. Millions in the encore stage of life can be part of the solution to social problems facing young and old alike. These life-seasoned people are ready, willing and very much able to do what we can for our country.

As 10,000 people a day turn 65, many motivated by powerful pulls to purpose and legacy, harnessing their energy, skills, and talents is a welcome challenge for our time. A half-century ago, JFK said, “It is not enough for a great nation merely to have added new years to life. Our objective must also be to add new life to those years.” The longevity boom is upon us: Will our country reap the human dividends?

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As WHCOA leaders contemplate the future of aging in America, I hope they take the imaginative leap and consider innovative programs and policies to leverage the time and experience of able, older adults. Will our country ask the encore generation to serve?

Phyllis N. Segal is vice president of Encore.org and on the board of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

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