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Ninth Annual Family Re-Union Policy Conference (11/20/00)

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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Monday, November 20, 2000

I want to welcome all of you to our ninth annual Family Re-Union -- to talk about the steps we can take to strengthen America's families across the generations. Over the past decade, these policy conferences have helped to shape my thinking on the broad range of challenges families face -- from education, to health care, to strong and sustainable community life. I wish I could be there in person today.

I'm especially pleased that this year's Family Re-Union is focussed on families and seniors. At last year's conference on family and community, we talked about how important seniors are to community life. In fact, it was a comment by Janet Hartey, who is with us again this year, that led to this year's topic.

There has never been a more hopeful time for older Americans. Our parents and grandparents are leading stronger, healthier, more active lives than ever before. And we have to make seniors an even more vital part of the American family.

Let me take just a moment to talk about the overall purpose of the Family Re-Unions. Tipper and I started these annual family policy conferences with a simple premise: many of the most important challenges facing us as Americans can't be solved by government, but must be solved by the family.

Families are where we all turn first for love and fulfillment, and for solutions to the challenges we face. And there is no government program that can connect a grandparent to a grandchild. There is no policy proposal that can teach a child discipline, tolerance, and respect. There is no law that can make a mother or father more actively engaged in their children's education.

Yet strengthening families must be a national priority. We cannot have a strong nation if our families are weak. And there is a lot we can do -- across the public, private, and non-profit sectors -- to make it easier, not harder, to be a strong family today.

When Tipper and I started working on these issues, we found that the role of the family was often ignored in our public policy debates. And for that reason, not enough was being done to give families the tools and the flexibility to solve their own problems -- such as paid family leave to care for a sick or newborn child. Or the simple responsibility of tough child support enforcement, so parents can do right by their children. Or the plain common sense of giving parents more help to protect their children from indecent culture, and content they find inappropriate on TV or on the Internet.

Thanks to so many of you, we've achieved a great deal over the past nine years. But our families face enormous challenges today. For many working parents, just finding enough time to spend with their children, to pass on the right values, is a daily struggle. Many in my generation are finding it hard to balance the needs and the expenses of our own aging parents on one hand, and college-age children on the other.

The focus of this year's Family Re-Union -- families and seniors -- presents us with both a challenge and an opportunity.

America's senior population is growing and changing. Not only is our senior population doubling in the next 30 years, but life expectancy is increasing dramatically -- and that's a great blessing.

Over the past year, in the course of the Presidential campaign, there has been a great deal of discussion about what these demographic changes mean for Americans' retirement security -- about the steps we need to take to strengthen Social Security and Medicare for the future.

Today, we're going to focus on one specific issue -- aging as it affects an entire family, and the power of all generations working together.

How do we harness the talents and energy of our older generations, and enable them to live out productive and fulfilling lives?

How can we help everyone to understand that seniors can be an important part of the solution to the challenges and stresses of today's family life?

This Family Re-Union is going to highlight and discuss three areas in particular:

First, we need to do more to support and encourage families as they care for each other across the generations. That includes younger families playing an active role in long-term or community-based care for an aging loved one. But it also means helping seniors to devote their time and experience to teach, mentor, and care for young people.

We know from Sally Newman's research that this can have a tremendously positive impact on a child's early development. We also know that many seniors have an important gift to give our children, one that is in short supply in many working families -- the gift of time.

Time to read a book. Time to give advice. And most of all, time to listen. In this way, seniors can ease the pressures on the whole family, and make a real difference in the lives of young people.

Second, as seniors live longer and healthier lives, many want to be even more engaged in community life -- through community service and civic engagement. The energy and wisdom of seniors is one of our greatest untapped resources. In every community, there are children who could benefit from extra help with schoolwork, such as that provided by Charles Gray; and streets that could be safer with help from Citizen Patrol volunteers like Bill and Jeanne Hoyt -- all of whom you'll meet today.

Today, in some of the working groups, you'll learn how this kind of activity can prevent depression, and help both seniors and young people stay healthy and strong. You'll learn about creative work environments that allow people to be productive in their later years. And you'll explore the ways that different cultures honor the generations.

Third and finally, we have to do more to break down the barriers -- both real and imagined -- between the generations, to make it easier for seniors to play a productive role in family and community life. From the right kind of housing within the community, to new opportunities for work and service, to the attitudes and stereotypes that too often stand in the way -- we have to make sure we can reap the full benefits of inter-generational involvement, for the sake of all our families.

You'll hear from Kayt Norris, who is working to record the memories of notable elders from her community. Her commitment to bridging the gap between generations should be a model for us all -- and she started her work when she was just eight years old.

We're fortunate to have at this year's Re-Union a great many people who are putting these ideas into action. If you look at today's program, you'll see a number of people whose titles begin with the word "founder." They should actually read "pioneer."

So many of you have broken down barriers for seniors, and gained experience and wisdom from which we can all benefit.

Dr. Jack McConnell is working with other retired medical professionals to provide free medical care to under-served communities.

Brenda Eheart has transformed abandoned military housing into a haven for seniors, troubled children, and their adoptive parents.

Rob Mayer is committed to creating lively, stimulating surroundings for the last years of life.

This is an inspiring and accomplished group, and Tipper and I are grateful for your participation.

In closing, let me say that my family has always been my greatest source of joy and fulfillment. It has been my greatest source of strength -- all my life and especially during the past week. Together, let us build a country that honors and upholds family life, across the generations. And let us give every one of our families the chance to shape a future that is truly worthy of the family we call America. Thank you.

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Stronger Families

Ninth Annual Family Re-Union Policy Conference (11/20/00)

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