On April 24, I was honored to represent our nation’s older women in a roundtable discussion hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls.
The meeting, “Promoting Equal Futures across the Lifespan,” brought together leaders from the fields of aging, health, abuse in later life, and financial security to discuss key issues affecting older women, complementing the 2015 White House Conference on Aging.
I was joined by Deputy Director for Minority Health Dr. Nadine Gracia, Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin, and Nora Super, Executive Director of the White House Conference on Aging. Kicking off the conversation, Executive Director of the Council on Women and Girls, Tina Tchen, spoke of the commitment of the Council to address inequalities and barriers facing women and girls of all ages. Tina’s leadership in expanding our national dialogue on women and girls to include older women sets an example I hope others will follow.
I say this because all too often, conversations about women and girls do not include older women. If we look across the lifespan, however, we see that many of the challenges older women face are the same barriers they encountered earlier in their lives: wage discrimination; unequal expectations of caregiving and raising children; higher costs of health care; violence and abuse. Gender disparities exist regardless of age and can be intensified by discrimination based on disability, sexuality or gender identity.
For example, Dr. Gracia pointed out that women of color often face food insecurity, along with the stress and expense that comes with managing multiple chronic conditions. “Health disparities can be exacerbated by cultural and language barriers for minority women, as well as reduced access to health care,” Dr. Gracia said.
Adding to these challenges is widespread financial insecurity for many older women. As Carolyn Colvin explained, “Because of their greater longevity, women are at greater risk of exhausting their savings. While income from other retirement programs and savings may run out, Social Security benefits continue for life.” Social Security is truly a lifeline for some older adults—mostly women—who rely on this as their only source of income.
Good health and economic security are undermined by abuse. The more we learn about elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, the more we understand that elder abuse predominantly impacts women—and that’s not simply because women outnumber men as they age. In fact, one of the most common forms of violence against older women is abuse by an intimate partner or spouse, which can include economic coercion or fraud. And, just as women and girls with disabilities are victimized at higher rates, older adults with severe dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are at increased risk of experiencing abuse.
Last month, I addressed this issue as part of the U.S. Delegation to the 59th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, highlighting the urgent need for data collection that counts women and girls of all ages and abilities. As a vital support to so many families around the world, we must eliminate negative stereotypes that depict older women as burdens, rather than honoring them. Older women—mothers, aunts, and grandmothers—are the backbone of our families and communities. Their lifetime contributions to the success and wellbeing of children and grandchildren; to our economy and our workforce, deserve special recognition.
Thanks to the White House Council on Women and Girls and all who joined us at the roundtable, older women are becoming more visible.
Kathy Greenlee is the Assistant Secretary for Aging and Administrator of the Administration for Community Living (ACL) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). ACL brings together into a single entity the Administration on Aging, the Office on Disability, and the Administration on Developmental Disabilities.