A Summary of the White House Conference on Aging Issues and Initiatives: Part One

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Priscilla Rogers wearing a blue shirt

Guest blogger Priscilla Rogers, Ph.D. is the Program Manager for VisionAware and co-author of Aging and Vision Loss: A Handbook for Families. Her other works include Self-Advocacy Skills Training for Older Individuals Who Are Visually Impaired and Solutions for Success: A Training Manual for Working with Older People Who Are Visually Impaired. She has an M.A. degree in gerontology and a Ph.D. in special education with an emphasis in vision and aging.

The 2015 White House Conference on Aging: An Overview

The White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) took place on July 13, 2015. It was an historic occasion that occurs once a decade. This year's conference was the first to take place on a national stage with the opportunity for people across the nation – and even the world – to listen in and participate through social media, including a Twitter feed @WHAging that enabled virtual attendees to ask questions and make comments.

2015 White House Conference on Aging logo

However, it is unfortunate that minimal effort was made to acknowledge aging and disabilities, particularly with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act approaching on July 26, 2015. Although the words "low vision," "visual impairment," and "screen reader" were used by some of the presenters, nothing was mentioned specifically about older Americans with visual impairments, except when discussing initiatives related to consumer fraud. In addition, the excellent videos that accompanied the presentations were not audio-described to make them fully accessible to participants and viewers who were blind or visually impaired.

This is the first of three posts that will cover the WHCOA initiatives that were announced with great fanfare – and, in several cases, with noticeable ageism.

Overriding Themes

The conference focused on four issues: healthy aging, long term services and supports, elder justice, and retirement security.

Adriane Berg from Generation Bold Radio summed up what happened quite well:

Every 10 years, leaders in the field of aging gather in Washington D.C. to attend the White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA). The WHCOA sets the tone for governmental, nonprofit, and commercial efforts that will affect us all. This year, there were significant themes which express the state of aging today:

  • Focus on family and professional caregivers
  • The woeful state of retirement savings of boomers
  • The disgrace of elder abuse
  • Age-friendly and dementia-friendly universally designed communities
  • Continued food insecurity
  • The ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives

American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and the State of Vision and Aging

All of these themes certainly affect older persons with vision loss and many were reflected in the input from across the country that AFB has received on the "state of vision and aging" in this country.

The American Foundation for the Blind's (AFB) letter to the President about the WHCOA articulated major issues related to aging and vision loss. AFB and the 70+ agencies that signed on to the letter emphasized the need for a systemic approach to ensure that older Americans who are blind or visually impaired are able to (a) receive the training in independent living they need to carry out everyday tasks, (b) obtain critical technologies to enhance their health, independence and safety, and (c) access appropriate support services, such as transportation.

President Obama Speaks at the WHCOA

Key quote: "...Because this conference takes place just once a decade, we have to make it count. ... one of the best measurements of a country is how it treats its older citizens." You can view President Obama's speech in its entirety at YouTube.

It's Up to Us to Carry the Ball

Just how do we in the field of visual impairment make this conference count for older persons with vision now and in the future? It is up to us to continue to push our agenda forward and use this opportunity to tie in the concerns raised in AFB's National Conversation and aging and vision loss survey. It is up to us to insert ourselves in this process; to become aware of the initiatives that are taking place; and make sure that we have or make a place at the table. Once at the table, it is our responsibility to advocate for resolution to specific concerns that affect older persons with vision loss.

Initiatives Rolled Out at the Conference

Editor's note: The initiatives detailed in this post come from Fact Sheet: White House Conference on Aging. These initiatives are related to the themes of the conference and other related concerns. We have included specific AFB responses and remarks to tie the WHCOA initiatives to issues that AFB has raised.

Launching Aging.gov

As a cross-cutting measure (i.e., fundamental issues related to, and included in, all programs and projects), the Administration launched Aging.gov on July 13, 2015. The purpose of Aging.gov is to provide older Americans, their families, friends, and other caregivers, with a one-stop resource for government-wide information on helping older adults live independent and fulfilling lives. The website links to a broad spectrum of Federal information, including how to find local services and resources in the community, as well as key information on vital programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Initiative: Retirement Security

  • Facilitating State Efforts to Provide Workplace-based Retirement Saving Opportunities: About a third of the workforce lacks access to a workplace retirement plan.... In the absence of Congressional action, the states are leading the charge. Similar proposals have been passed by a few states and are under consideration in over 20 others. Other states are considering an approach that would encourage employers to create 401(k)-type plans. By the end of the year, the U.S. Department of Labor will publish a proposed rule clarifying how states can move forward, including with respect to requirements to automatically enroll employees and for employers to offer coverage.
  • Employers Better Preparing Workers for Retirement: Even among workers with access to an employer-based plan, only 78 percent participate; for part-time workers, this number decreases to 57 percent... Best practices like automatic enrollment of employees in 401(k) plans starting at levels of at least 5 percent of pay, automatic escalation of contributions, substantial employer matching and other contributions, and comprehensive financial education programs are important to help employees better prepare for retirement. Some companies have set up innovative plans. Also, for new savers without access to workplace retirement savings plans, the U.S. Department of the Treasury has also introduced myRA (my Retirement Account), a simple, safe, and no-fee savings option. Individuals can currently contribute to myRA through payroll deductions at their employers, and will also be able to contribute directly through their bank accounts later this year.
  • Helping Workers Plan for Retirement by Providing Ready Access to Information About Their Social Security Benefits: To assist Americans in their financial planning, the Social Security Administration is providing individuals with an easily transferable data file with the information contained in their monthly Social Security benefit statement, and has released a guide to help developers understand how they could incorporate the data into new software. New tools utilizing this information could combine it with self-reported information on an individual's retirement savings in 401(k)-style plans and IRAs to help individuals understand the amount of resources they will have available, determine how much to save, and figure out when to claim Social Security benefits, among other important financial planning and retirement decisions. Betterment, Financial Engines, and HelloWallet Holdings (a Morningstar Company) have committed to developing software incorporating the new data from SSA.
  • Protecting Defined Benefit Pensions: To ensure that more retirees continue to enjoy a steady, reliable stream of income in retirement, the U.S. Department of the Treasury has recently issued guidance clarifying that employers sponsoring defined benefit pension plans generally may not offer lump sum payments to retirees to replace their regular monthly pensions.
  • Facilitating the Availability of Lifetime Income Options: Retirement security requires more than just accumulating savings—people also need protection against outliving assets. Lifetime income options like annuities provide a regular stream of income regardless of lifespan... the U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance clarifying that an employer's fiduciary duty to monitor an insurer's solvency generally ends when the plan no longer offers the annuity as a distribution option, not when the insurer finishes making all promised payments. The guidance should encourage more employers to offer lifetime income annuities as a benefit distribution option in their 401(k)-type plans.

AFB's Concerns Re: Retirement Security

Although the above measures address major concerns related to retirement, economic security is even more precarious among older Americans who retired early due to unexpected vision loss, who have had vision loss for most of their lives and as a result had fewer employment opportunities. These individuals significantly economically disadvantaged as a direct result of their vision loss.

One respondent shared the following with AFB: "Many individuals were diagnosed after retirement and did not even think about planning to have finances to pay for video magnifiers; co-payments for injections related to age-related macular degeneration; in-home assistance; or options for transportation. Those who do not have the financial resources do without; those who have financial resources found that retirement funds have to be diverted from more fun/social expenditures to 'eye care needs.'"

Initiative: Utilizing Technology to Support Older Americans

As part of the administration's commitment to making Federal government data open and more easily usable, ...by September 2015, Federal data sets relevant to aging and to elderly Americans will be made easily available on Data.gov, the repository for the U.S. Government's open data. This resource will continuously be updated with datasets on aging, much like it is for other important Administration priorities such as climate, public safety, and education.

Private Sector Actions Regarding Technology and Its Intersection with Management of Day-to-Day Life

In connection with the WHCOA, private sector leaders announced new actions to help bring technology to bear to improve support for older Americans:

iPad with hand indicating apps on screen
  • LeadingAge, an association of 6,000 not-for-profit organizations and businesses that represent a broad field of aging services, is planning to partner with Hewlett-Packard using HP's 3D immersive computing platform and Federal open data to challenge innovators to create technology-driven tools to improve the lives of older adults and their families.
  • Walgreens has made advancements in its digital technologies to connect individuals with its telehealth services provider, which offers 24/7 access to U.S. board-certified doctors. Seniors also can track their health behavior with personal wellness smartphone technologies from Walgreens and WebMD.
  • Peapod has adopted "best in class" web accessibility standards to ensure that all individuals, including those with disabilities and those who are unable to shop at traditional stores, can use its website and mobile applications.
  • Honor, a tech-enabled company that matches seniors with care professionals, will offer $1 million in free home care across 10 cities in the country and work with established care providing organizations in those communities to ensure this care goes to helping older Americans.
  • The University of Washington's School of Nursing and the HEALTH-E (Home-based Environmental Assisted Living Technologies for Healthy Elders) initiative are introducing an Aging and Technology Laboratory, which includes hardware and software tools to support participatory design of technology for older adults. The laboratory will allow scientists, engineers, and others to engage older adults and their families to accelerate the generation of new solutions to support aging.
  • Philips, joined by the MIT AgeLab and Georgetown University's Global Social Enterprise Initiative, will create the AgingWell Hub – an incubator for open innovation that examines and shares solutions to aging well through the use of new technologies, products, services and thought leadership in collaboration with academia, healthcare systems, caregivers, payers, entrepreneurs and older adults.

AFB's Response to Technology Initiatives

Despite efforts to build an awareness at every level of government about the importance of ensuring that technologies used for living and working are accessible, the accessibility of technologies remains an ongoing and uphill battle for consumers who are visually impaired. Technology affects every aspect of everyday life and can make or break a person's decision to remain independent – from taking medication, to reading bills, to ordering groceries, to getting around.

Technology does hold the key to answering many of the dilemmas faced by older Americans including those with vision loss, but the decision to make technology accessible out of the box must be a conscious decision that includes the stakeholders. AFB recently honored Apple for doing just this: creating VoiceOver, a gesture-based screen reader that allows users to hear a description of everything happening on the display, and other features that make iPhone, iPad and other iOS devices accessible to people with vision loss.

No mention was made of Walgreen's initiative on accessible prescriptions.

Further, the very devices that affect independence are not covered by Medicare or other funding, nor is training to use them available on a consistent basis. As noted by one respondent, "Medicare should pay for assistive devices for people with low vision or no vision... Aids for vision, such as glasses, magnifiers, and talking devices should be covered. This could mean the difference between a person being independent and having to have a family member or to hire someone to provide these services."

For More Information

Information on the WHCOA initiatives has been excerpted from Fact Sheet: The White House Conference on Aging.


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