Conference on Aging: How should US treat its elderly?

It has been the stormiest White House Conference on Aging ever. After three days of committee sessions and countless resolutions, many of them contradictory , the once-a-decade meeting has forged no clear pathway for the 1980s.

Instead, it has set the stage for a national debate on how America will treat its growing numbers of elderly.

''We got some of those real liberal folks real upset,'' said delegate Ed Blackburn, a retired sheriff from Florida, whose sentiments were echoed by many delegates here. He made the comment as he came out of a meeting of the committee assigned to the conference's hottest topic: social security.

Among other actions, that committee voted to endorse President Reagan's efforts on social security, to reject national income goals for older persons, and to protect benefits for current recipients, but not necessarily for future generations.

''I don't think that's representative of what older people think about social security,'' said another member of the social security committee, Patricia Riley , director of the Maine state office on aging. Like many of the delegates and leaders of organizations on aging, she charged that the Reagan administration had packed key committees with conservatives.

Conference officials have denied such charges, but the administration's control over conference rules and procedures clearly gave it an upper hand. Even a special newspaper published by the government and handed out to delegates illustrated that fact: It featured a full front-page photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Reagan.

Delegates shouted in vain for a full debate on the 14 committee reports during the final conference session. Chairman Constance Armitage refused to recognize them.

Despite the controversy, a coalition of major aging groups called most of the final proposals ''remarkably positive.''

The conference accomplished at least two important goals. It put before the public the vitality and political power of the aged, and it has for the first time since the conferences began in 1961 focused on the older woman.

The 1981 conference specifically devoted one of its committees to the concerns of older women. ''It's very significant,'' said Tish Sommers, president of the Older Women's League of Oakland, Calif. ''It's going to raise consciousness to the fact that so many of the issues on aging are problems of women.''

With life expectancies greater than for men, women must plan for their later years, she said. ''The time is right now to catch women ahead of time to help them recognize that they don't necessarily have to end up like their mothers.''

The aim is to change attitudes, added the Older Women's League president. ''A lot has to do with a woman's feelings about herself. A woman who looks in the mirror and thinks of herself as ugly should see those wrinkles as a road map of her life experience with a beauty of its own.''

Conservatives clearly did not prevail in the committee on older women's concerns, which approved a variety of liberal programs including a national health plan. It also endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, which the President opposes.

The conference is ''well worth doing,'' summed up an official observer, Rose Somerville, sociology professor emeritus at San Diego State University. She said that more important than political bickering, ''we're creating a program for the whole decade.''

The sociologist added that the conference has widespread effects that cannot be measured. Her local delegation, for example, launched an essay contest for sixth graders who wrote on ''what I think our country should be doing for the elderly.'' For the contest, many of the youngsters visited nursing homes and met with older people.

''People get impressions at an early age of the elderly,'' said Dr. Somerville. ''All of this will add up.''

While youngsters in California begin to give more thought to their elders, in Washington the conference will certainly leave a lasting impression. It proves once again that the aged are a force to be reckoned with in politics.

Many of the participants arrived bedecked in buttons from the burgeoning aging organizations, ranging from the Gray Panthers to the American Association of Retired Persons. Twenty years ago only some 200,000 had joined such groups, and now the membership is estimated in the tens of millions.

Congress and the President may not act on many of the conference recommendations. But they will know that older voters, who are far more likely to go to the polls than younger ones, will be watching.

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