Make the most of the Conference on Aging

It would be unfortunate if the political haggling and partisanship surrounding this week's White House Conference on Aging prevent a thorough discussion of the problems - and opportunities - facing the millions of Americans aged 65 or older.

Americans in what has often erroneously come to be thought of as the retirement years now make up 12 percent of the US population. They are better educated and more articulate than ever and have increasing clout at the voting booth. They are pressing issues such as improving access to jobs, protecting social and legal gains already won from budget-slashing efforts, controlling crime, checking inflation which hits hard at all persons on fixed incomes, as well as devising appropriate nursing care standards, including the right to home care.

Obviously it would be impossible to divorce these issues totally from politics. The conference was politicized from the beginning. One featured speaker, for example, Florida Democratic Congressman Claude Pepper, is not only chairman of the House Committee on Aging but an outspoken liberal deeply critical of the Reagan administration. Many of the citizens' organizations in attendance, moreover, are lobby groups that have attacked the budget cuts undertaken by the administration.

Whether they are ''right'' or ''wrong'' in opposing such cuts or projected cuts - such as Mr. Reagan's initial efforts to trim back social security outlays - it is important to recognize that they are themselves part of the circle of formidable lobby groups that seek to shape national budgets.

The administration has countered by adding some 400 or so hand-picked (and presumably pro-administration) delegates at the last minute. Still, as the White House notes, these delegates will be only a small percentage of the total 2,300 delegates and 1,500 observers attending the meetings.

Thus, philosophical differences were inherent in this conference, given the conservative bent and budget-pruning efforts of the present administration, and the opposing activism of Mr. Pepper. Does that, however, justify the administration's attempts to require a final up-or-down vote as a whole on the conference proceedings, rather than allowing votes on individual issues in committees? Past conferences have allowed such individual votes, which are only advisory.

The underlying philosophical competition between the views represented by Congressman Pepper and Mr. Reagan should be lively. Mr. Pepper seeks to protect existing gains for the elderly, such as current social security benefits. In doing so he runs smack into Mr. Reagan's view that the budget-cutting battle against inflation must be shared equally by all groups within the US, including older Americans.

The task will be to find the middle ground between such claims. The very fact that Mr. Reagan's political constituency is made up of many older persons suggests that such a compromise is possible.

The important point is that the concerns of the aged need to be addressed squarely and solutions identified. Such a larger approach should transcend the politics - and heated rhetoric - of the moment.

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