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Retiring Boomers Pose Policy Challenge

In 1961, the first White House Conference on Aging made a big impact. John F. Kennedy listened and then, as president, pushed for the creation of Medicare and an expansion of Social Security.

The latest White House Conference on Aging opens this weekend in Washington, D.C. Appointed mainly by members of Congress and governors, 1,200 experts and advocates are meeting to recommend policy. There's a conference once every 10 years. To make a difference this time, delegates must address a big demographic change: On Jan. 1, the first baby boomers turn 60.

"We are all looking around and seeing another 78 million of us coming into this phase of our life," says Dorcas Hardy, delegate and committee head. "We have a kind of view, which I personally share myself, that we will not get old. Well that is not reality. So maybe you can look at this conference as a reality check for all of us and how can we have a better, healthier more productive longevity."

The big issues are the usual ones: Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. But as the delegates gather, Congress and the White House have put off reform plans for Social Security. Medicaid -- which pays for nursing home care for the poor -- faces deep cuts.

Then there's Medicare. People over 65 have just begun enrolling for the new prescription drug benefit. Many say it's too confusing.

Delegate Bob Blancato ran the last White House conference in 1995. He says the new Medicare drug benefit will be debated, along with how to make Medicare work for the boomers.

"With boomers becoming eligible in 2011, for Medicare, what changes have to be made to make it relevant to them?" asks Blancato. "My guess is you'll see more emphasis on prevention, so aging policy for the first time now will include boomers and seniors and that's an important new step in our policy direction."

It's often smaller issues that get the biggest boost from the White House conferences, says Blancato. The last conference led to more help for family caregivers and funding for grandparents raising their grandchildren.

Marc Freedman, a past delegate and founder of Civic Ventures, however, said these meetings no longer matter as much as they initially did.

He recalls the first conference in 1961: "There was soaring rhetoric. And many major policy initiatives followed in the coming years."

"Over the years, the conferences have become less and less a basis for that kind of creativity and innovation, and more a professional networking event," says Freedman.

Freedman's Civic Ventures think tank focuses on helping older Americans find meaning in work and volunteer jobs. He says this conference needs to spend more time on aging as a new phase of life, since many boomers can expect to spend another third of their lives after they retire.

Delegates begin work on Sunday. They'll vote on and finish their recommendations to lawmakers, the White House, governors and to the private sector by Wednesday.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.