The Legacy of Claude Pepper and the Future of Aging Advocacy

This paper shows how Sen. Claude Pepper great career and legacy are continuing sources of inspiration for advocates dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for older people today.

No nationally prominent spokesperson for older persons has emerged, since Senator Claude Pepper (D-Ala.), to pursue even a portion of the broad aging policy agenda that he did so much to advance. Since Pepper’s death in 1989, aging advocates and policy makers have spent more time and energy fending off proposals to cut aging programs than they have spent pressing for improved or new programs—this, in advance of the impending increase in the ages 65 and older population. Such diminished interest in aging issues has occurred not only among Republican policymakers, who have historically been less supportive of aging programs, but also among Democrats.

In his last several years in Congress, Claude Pepper was widely known as the leading advocate for the elderly. He was also in a position as a policy maker to shepherd much of his vision for improving the lives of older people into law. He, however, always thought of his policy advocacy and legislative initiatives as part of a larger campaign to change the image of older persons and free Americans from the negative stereotypes that distorted their views of older adults, and to impart how ageism harms everyone. He felt his greatest achievement in working on behalf of the elderly was that:

The national attitude toward old people has made a 180-degree turn. More and more, younger generations have come to realize that in their elders they have a precious and useful asset, not a burden. Old people are the same persons they were when they were young. Some may not hear so well, may have to wear glasses, [and] maybe are a step slower when they walk. But they are not useless, and they must not be treated as outcasts, as more and more Americans have come to realize (Pepper and Gorey, 1987).

Not all of this gratifying change in attitude stemmed from the efforts of the Select Committee, or from Claude Pepper. But they both helped.

– American Society on Aging

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