About 15 people attended the conference presentation at Chapel Hill's Seymour Center, another 15 joined a watch party at the Hillsborough Senior Center.
About 15 people attended the conference presentation at Chapel Hill's Seymour Center, another 15 joined a watch party at the Hillsborough Senior Center. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

North Carolina seniors attended local watch parties to participate in the White House Conference on Aging this week.

By Rose Hoban

Around North Carolina and the country Monday, hundreds of seniors and advocates for the aging gathered to meet with President Barack Obama and some of the nation’s leaders on the elderly … virtually.

For the first time, the White House Conference on Aging was streamed around the county to hundreds of “watch parties.”

Durham’s Carolyn Robinson turns 65 this September and was interested in finding out more about Medicare during Monday’s conference. Photo credit: Rose Hoban.

In senior centers and social services offices from Madison and Mitchell counties in the west to the New Hanover County Senior Resource Center in Wilmington, at least two dozen groups of people gathered to watch and discuss a program that focused on what AARP national head Joann Jenkins called “disruptive aging.”

“Thanks to innovative ideas such as universal home design that allows people to live at home permanently and safely, practical ideas for abolishing mandatory retirements and cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security payments … people today are living on average nine years longer than they did in 1961 when the first [White House Conference on Aging] was held,” Jenkins told the national audience.

“The ideas that grew out of these previous conferences have truly transformed the experience of growing older in America,” she said, to murmurs of excitement from a group of about a dozen women at the Durham Center for Senior Life.

During today’s conference, Obama talked about the need to create better ways for seniors to save for retirement, including a new form of individual retirement accounts. He said he’s instructed Department of Labor Sec. Tom Perez to set rules that will provide guidance to states on how to create ways to automatically enroll workers without access to a retirement plan into an IRA.

EulaMae Washington (left) from Durham came to the watch party with her friend Quinzetta Rogers, who is visiting from New York. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“If every state did this, tens of millions more Americans could save for retirement at work,” he said.

After Obama’s morning address, a dozen fast-paced presentations covered topics from caregiving to financial-security planning to technological innovation.

“I really wanted to know what they was talking about,” said EulaMae Rogers, who watched in Durham. “There’s a lot of stuff out there for senior citizens that we just don’t know about.”

New hurdles

The first conference took place in 1961, before the creation of Medicare, when the average life expectancy of Americans was in the 60s. Monday’s event was the sixth conference, convened, in part, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid. This year’s event was the last of a number of regional forums held across the country in conjunction with AARP over the past year.

About 15 people attended the conference presentation at Chapel Hill’s Seymour Center; another 15 joined a watch party at the Hillsborough Senior Center. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

For this year’s conference, some seniors in Raleigh were celebrating a new milestone, with the recent Supreme Court decision that legalizes gay marriage in all 50 states.

“This is the first time that LGBT representation has been invited to this conference,” said Les Geller, program director for seniors at the Raleigh LGBT Center. A half-dozen graying gay activists gathered in the morning at the center in the Warehouse District to watch and hear Obama address the conference.

Geller said the Supreme Court ruling was an important step, but that there are still issues that push elderly LGBT people back into the closet.

“Gay seniors came of age when it was still illegal to be gay,” he said, “They don’t trust the system at all.”

Geller noted that distrust can result in older gay people being unwilling to seek care.

“I think they need to be assured that they’re in a safe space, and that goes back to training of administration and staff in facilities,” he said.

One member of the morning’s first panel talked about the diversity of the aging population and mentioned LGBT issues in particular. Geller said the group at the center was glad to also hear from one audience member, an activist from New York. She got up and talked about the need to create policies that would help people like her not feel the need to return to the closet.

Watchers in Durham tweeted to the White House Conference on Aging (#WHCOA) stream.

“We’re grateful to have a place at the table at all,” Geller said. “But it’s at the local level, that’s where we need to be more comprehensive.”

Promises and perils

Many seniors have a love/hate relationship with technology, said panelist Joe Coughlin from the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Around the time he said that, the watch party in Durham was having trouble seeing the web stream of his presentation.

But even as many seniors have embraced their mobile phones, texting with their grandchildren and electronic assistive devices that allow them to remain in their homes, panelists also said technology has made it easier to defraud seniors.

Presenter Kathy Greenlee from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services talked about so-called “grandparent” scams, where, for instance, con artists call seniors and tell them a grandchild is in trouble and needs money.

“I consider elder abuse to be an outrage against humanity, because it is an outrage against us all,” Greenlee said.

She said about two in 10 seniors are at some point victims of financial fraud. Many of the scams involve the Internet and credit card fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting seniors, often people with dementia.

“It’s not just the rich, it’s not just the low income, it’s everybody,” said Janice Tyler, executive director of the Orange County Department on Aging, who works out of the Robert and Pearl Seymour Center in Chapel Hill.

“I know someone who’s parent was scammed … a very intelligent person,” Tyler said. “I know we’re moving toward technology, but I’m hesitant with some of these websites.”

Emily Gordon, who described herself as a “semi-retired social worker,” watched the presentations at the Seymour Center with about 15 other people.

“It just went so fast,” Gordon said. “I would have loved two days.”

Tyler agreed.

“This is only the beginning,” she said. “This is just starting the conversation. I think it will be interesting to see what happens next.”

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