By Suzanne Perry Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, in Washington, says she chuckled when she read the letter telling her she had been named an at-large delegate to the White House Conference on Aging, to be held in Washington in December.
"It said, 'You're expected to be visionary. You're also expected to arrive in good health, physically and mentally,'" she says. Ms. Butts and her fellow delegates -- 1,200 in all -- will need the stamina to agree on 50 resolutions during the course of four days of meetings to guide national policy on issues affecting older Americans over the next decade, as well as plans to put the resolutions into practice.
A key focus of the conference will be on ways that nonprofit groups can get older Americans involved in social causes.
Generations United, which promotes cooperation between different age groups on public-policy issues, is one of many charities and advocacy groups across the country that are hoping to influence the aging conference, the first in a decade.
Like its predecessors -- in 1961, 1971, 1981, and 1995 -- the White House conference is charged with recommending to the president and Congress ways to ensure that the country's growing number of older people can support themselves financially, get good health care, and live dignified lives. But the event takes place just weeks before a landmark date that has added a sense of urgency to the proceedings -- January 1, 2006, the day the first of the baby boomers turn 60.
The sheer size of the baby-boom generation -- an estimated 77 million -- is expected to have a profound impact on the nation's approach to aging, as reflected in the conference theme, "The Booming Dynamics of Aging: From Awareness to Action."
"It's not so much that boomers are inherently different, as that there are so many of them," says John Rother, director of policy and strategy for AARP, the membership and advocacy group for older people, which has submitted dozens of draft resolutions for the conference.
The delegates -- selected by governors, members of Congress, the National Congress of American Indians, and conference organizers -- will consider resolutions on Social Security and other retirement income, job opportunities, social services, health care, and products such as drugs and housing.
They will also tackle a topic that affects a wide range of charities: how to develop policies that encourage older Americans, especially the coming wave of boomers, to channel their energy and expertise into volunteerism, nonprofit work, or other forms of "civic engagement."
Nonprofit groups, especially those that focus on aging issues or services, have been active players in many of the more than 400 forums and conferences that have taken place nationwide over the past year to prepare for the December event, and have submitted hundreds of recommendations that they hope the delegates will adopt.
Robert Blancato, a consultant on aging issues in Washington and a member of the White House conference's policy committee, says participants in conference-related events have expressed much concern about "long-term care" -- how to ensure people get good, affordable medical and nursing care as they live longer lives.
But many are also excited about the "civic engagement" issue, he adds.
"It needs to be promoted aggressively in this conference," he says. "Number one, for the psychological benefit of the people engaged in these activities, and second -- the thing that doesn't get enough attention -- for the contribution this civic engagement makes to the community."
The Gerontological Society of America, an organization that represents people who specialize in aging issues, has made a major effort to provide ideas on that issue. The group has received nearly $1-million from the Atlantic Philanthropies, in New York, for a five-year project, "Civic Engagement in an Older America," to promote research into ways to encourage older people to devote their skills and experience to volunteer work or national service.
Greg O'Neill, director of the project, says he was not aware of the White House conference when he wrote his grant proposal, but decided to shift gears when he learned that civic engagement would be on the agenda.
"When I saw that kind of language, I thought, 'Hmm, maybe we should try to take advantage of this.'"
The society organized four public forums in different cities and invited experts from foundations, volunteer programs, government bodies, and colleges and universities to testify. It then submitted a report to the conference on ways to promote volunteerism among older people.
For example, the government could offer tax credits for training or continuing education to prepare people for volunteer work, as well as tax incentives for corporate volunteer programs. Another idea: establish a bipartisan commission to examine how laws and policies on taxes, retirement, health care, and pensions can encourage volunteer activity.
The federal Corporation for National and Community Service, which operates volunteer programs for older people, also made several recommendations to the conference about ways the government could promote volunteerism among baby boomers and their elders. It proposed offering money to nonprofit groups to "foster the growth of new models to engage older Americans in their communities."
It also suggested offering subsidies or tax credits to older people who volunteer significant amounts of time and companies that give older employees time off for volunteering.
"We're working hard to ensure the White House Conference on Aging [recognizes] seniors as an asset, not just a drain on Social Security and Medicare, but an incredible asset for our nation," says Sandy Scott, a spokesman for the agency.
Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures, a think tank in San Francisco, and a leading proponent of civic engagement for older Americans, says he is heartened that the White House conference is taking up the issue.
However, the task of tapping into the "human and social capital" of older Americans is too big for an event that will also discuss many other issues, he says.
"It's a promising start and it can help clarify the road ahead, but that road is long and significant and will require an enormous amount of additional focus."
Helping the Blind, Minorities
Indeed, recommendations submitted to the conference by nonprofit groups reflect a wide array of other concerns.
The American Foundation for the Blind, in New York, has recommended that the government create tax incentives for manufacturers who earn a "Senior Seal of Approval" by consulting older Americans with vision and hearing losses about the design of home appliances, drugs, and other products.
The Institute for the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Elderly, in New York, and Minority Aging Defense, a consortium of groups advocating for minority older Americans, has proposed that the federal government increase rental-assistance programs and build additional housing for older Americans.
The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and several dozen other groups have urged Congress to adopt the Elder Justice Act, which would create mechanisms to fight exploitation and abuse of older people.
Results of previous White House Conferences on Aging have been mixed.
The first two conferences, in 1961 and 1971, laid the groundwork for significant programs -- Medicare, the Older Americans Act, the Age Discrimination Act, and the National Institute on Aging. But delegates at the last conference, in 1995, focused heavily on protecting existing programs for older people -- a reaction to the 1994 elections that gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives and brought in a budget-cutting political climate.
Dorcas Hardy, chairman of the White House conference's policy committee and a former commissioner of Social Security, says the committee will boil down the thousands of recommendations it has received into 100 or 125 draft resolutions, and ask the delegates to adopt 50 of them -- along with action plans for making them happen.
"We want something to come out of this conference as a total package, not just a resolution that sits there on the table."
Paul Hodge, research fellow at Harvard University's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and an expert adviser to the conference, says he hopes there is good follow-up to this conference. He says the last one concluded in its executive summary that the United States needed to prepare for the aging of baby boomers, but, "Nobody's done anything."
In testimony before the conference policy committee last year, Mr. Hodge warned that America's "graying" would transform retirement, health-care and welfare systems, the labor market, banking, and the stock markets, and alter social mores on issues such as age discrimination and end-of-life care.
"Whether that transformation is positive or negative will depend on planning and preparation that must begin today," he said.
Information about the White House conference, to be held Dec. 11-14, is available at www.whcoa.gov.
Suzanne Perry is a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Philanthropy