A champion for the aging population - in search of the next Claude Pepper

Posted on May 05, 2011 by Suzanne Gregory

By Suzanne Gregory, Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence (SCOPE)

The American Society on Aging conference on San Francisco was a tremendous opportunity to learn from scores of dedicated professionals across many areas of aging, including nonprofit leaders, senior center directors, policy analysts, AARP leaders, and technology consultants. I will reflect on these in bits and pieces as I make connections and share the things that impact our work on aging with dignity and independence.

One session, “The Politics of Aging in the 21st Century,” proved to be a lively discussion among a very knowledgeable panel:

Fred Lynch, professor and author of One Nation Under AARP

Larry Polivka, director of Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University

Phyllis Segal, VP of Civic Ventures

John Rother, AARP executive VP

It was suggested that one way to view aging is in terms of the number of years left to live productively. Years have been added to adulthood. There’s been an increase in the participation rate of older adults in the workforce.

What if our policy debate on the national level included discussion of the shape and content of longer working lives?

What if SSA rules were more flexible?

It was lamented that we no longer have a recognizable champion for the senior population in D.C.  Someone like a Claude Pepper or a Ted Kennedy. (A brief history refresher – Pepper served Florida in both the US Senate and later the House of Representatives. In 1977, he was named chair of the new House Select Committee on Aging. Pepper became a voice for the aging, and lent his skill to strengthening Medicare and the Social Security system.)

No one has stepped to the plate in D.C. to fill this void in the “aging space.” This seems a bit amazing. Think about the voting power of 78 million baby boomers. While politically diverse, they represent a potentially significant voting bloc.

Rising health care costs are a threat. Along with Medicare and Social Security, it’s at the core of aging politics. The viability of future Medicare coverage for some health-related tech devices was discussed at a few of the technology workshops. These same issues surface in the Aging with Dignity & Independence initiative.

In our focus groups, physical health and health care mattered most. Top fears and challenges included outliving income and economic insecurity. As we look to help older adults age with dignity and independence, we need to stay tuned-in to the political landscape as well.  It’s a piece of the challenge and a piece of the solution. Who might become the next Claude Pepper? I would love to hear your ideas.

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