2006 Vol. 15, No. 1, p. 11
By Paula Hartman-Stein, Ph.D.
White House Conference on Aging: Symbolic
victory for mental health?
Washington, D.C.-At the recent White House Conference on
Aging (WHCoA) 78 percent of the 1,200 delegates voted to support the
resolution for training of geriatric education for health care
professionals, ranking it sixth among 73 resolutions, which was
touted by professional groups as a victory for geriatric mental
In stark contrast, legislators a few blocks away later that
week played out a very different agenda. Congress voted to eliminate
all funding through the Bureau of Health Professionals (Title VII)
for geriatric training, including geriatric psychiatry and
geropsychology fellowships, academic career awards for geriatricians
and the operation of 50 nationwide geriatric education centers.
“Nothing can demonstrate more vividly that what the
delegates said in this conference is not of significance regarding
policy,” said Robert Binstock, Ph.D., delegate at large and
professor of aging, health and society at Case Western Reserve
University. The official mission of the conference is to generate
recommendations for Congress and the president for dealing with the
needs of the aging population and the baby boom generation. But
Binstock called the conference only symbolic. “All that I can say
with certainty is that 1,200 delegates went home with certificates,
and $7 million was spent on the conference.”
Binstock, a delegate at two previous White House conferences
on aging, stated that only one major outcome from these conferences
occurred in 1971 when President Nixon advocated for a doubling a
$100 million authorization for congregate meals at senior centers,
part of a bill reauthorizing the Older Americans Act.
Many delegates criticized the absence of President Bush,
viewing it as a snub that for the first time in 40 years the
president did not speak at the WHCoA.
Norman Abeles, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Michigan
State University and a delegate to two White House conferences on
aging, criticized the tight management of this year’s conference.
He explained that delegates presented a resolution signed by 23
percent of the members that would permit additional resolutions for
a vote that would result from work groups on specific topics.
Facilitators denied the request.
Binstock referred to the language of many of the resolutions
as “vacuous,” pointing to examples of broad language such as
“strengthening” Social Security and the Medicare program.
Mick Smyer, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Arts and
Sciences at Boston College and delegate from Massachusetts, was
disappointed that papers he and others prepared prior to the
conference were not distributed to the delegates as planned. Last
May Brian Lindberg, consultant to the conference, had approached
Smyer to write a “vision paper” on mental health and aging. A
few days prior to the conference he learned the vision papers would
not be distributed due to “technicalities.”
Some delegates felt that significantly positive results for
mental health did occur at the conference, specifically the
inclusion of a resolution for improving recognition, assessment and
treatment of mental illness and depression among older Americans.
Ronald F. Levant, Ed.D., APA President and delegate at large, called
it a “major victory toward eliminating stigma of mental illness in
According to Stephen Bartels, M.D., geriatric psychiatrist
and professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School, the fact
that the mental health resolution ranked eighth among the 73
resolutions “signals that the message has finally gotten across
that the greatest fear of many seniors is losing their mind to
Alzheimer, depression, and suicide.” At the 1995 WHCoA, Bartels
said, “Mental health could not have been farther off the radar
Smyer remains cautiously optimistic for promotion of
geriatric mental health care and training as a result of the
conference, viewing the WHCoA as “a necessary but not sufficient
set of first steps.” He said that mental health advocates need to
work with their local and community partners in implementing the
initiatives and resolutions.
The WHCoA is a non-partisan event that occurs about every 10
years. The psychologist delegates included Levant, Abeles, Smyer,
John Cavanaugh, Suzann Ogland-Hand and Margaret Hastings. APA
staffer, Deborah Digilio, also worked in conjunction with the
National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging. To read more about
the WHCoA go to the website www.whcoa.gov
Paula E. Hartman-Stein, Ph.D. is a consultant,
clinician, and political advocate in Kent, Ohio, and director of
geriatric psychology at Summa Health System in Akron. She can be
reached through her website, www.centerforhealthyaging.com