As the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Ai-jen Poo is a relentless community organizer and has just released her new book The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.
1. In your book, you see the elder boom as “one of our greatest opportunities for positive, transformative change at every level.” What is your vision?
Through the elder boom, we have an opportunity to completely reimagine how we as Americans spend our later years in life. And this could create ripple effects throughout our society that would benefit generations to come.
This generation of seniors is more active and living longer than ever before. They want to stay connected to their families, friends and communities. They want to live independently in their homes for as long as possible. This opens up a tremendous opportunity to bring significant change to all aspects of care infrastructure, and the culture and policies that support it – from housing and transportation, to the workforce that will be needed to meet the increasing demand for home care.
So at the personal level, we can remember that people getting older isn’t a crisis, it’s a blessing. We can let go of our fear of death, truly value our elders, learn from their life experiences and wisdom, and care for them in a way in which we are all more connected. The medicalization of aging and the nursing home as an institution are fairly new. We need a more integrated, humane, holistic approach to care that reflects our 21st century values.
At the relational level, we need to spark the necessary conversations around aging in American families at an earlier stage —engaging our children, parents, and siblings as part of our daily life around how they want to age.
And as a country, we are challenged to recognize our interdependence. To become a more caring nation—where everyone has the choice to age at home, with dignity, care, and the support of their families, for as long as they can – we must recognize that this cannot come at the expense of a largely unprotected, under-paid, and undocumented immigrant workforce that struggles to take care of their own families even as they take care of others.’ Recognizing home care as the answer to the elder boom, and making the necessary changes to support a sustainable home care infrastructure, will require making care services more affordable and accessible for all; the creation of 2 million more home care jobs; the commitment to making sure these jobs are fairly paid, quality jobs; and a real path to citizenship for the millions of hardworking immigrants who support our economy.
2. How does the perception of care workers need to shift?
We need to understand that care workers aren’t just the “help”—they’re skilled individuals who become a crucial part of our households and our care teams, and tackle physically and emotionally demanding work with grace, sensitivity, and humor. They’re also professionals who should be treated as such. The professional care workforce is underpaid and undervalued, and we all benefit when we give care workers the respect they deserve.
3. What is the “Caring Majority?”
The short answer is, all of us! The Caring Majority is everyone impacted by issues of care and the Elder Boom — aging Americans, family caregivers, care workers, people with disabilities, even young people. So many of us care for, or know some one who cares for, a loved one. We can all be united on this issue, because everybody wants to live and age with dignity and independence, and everyone at some point in their lives will be a caregiver or need one. By bringing together the Caring Majority, we can create broad, accessible solutions that can work for all of us.
4. How can caring for our elders be spiritually rewarding?
Caring for one another roots us in the interconnectedness of the world. Caring for loved ones doesn’t have to be a chore—it can be a spiritually provoking aspect of life that strengthens families and allows everyone to live fulfilled lives without sacrificing their inner spiritual needs. It’s also an opportunity to connect with generations past, creating a cycle of care where younger generations care for their elders, share stories and improve their spiritual health in the process.
5. Your grandmother is your greatest teacher. What example has she set for you?
She’s teaching me what it looks like to age with humor, grace, and dignity. At 88, she still plays mah-jong with her friends once a week! My grandmother has also lived through war and the death of loved ones, but has persevered and thrived. She gave me my first lessons in kindness and respect when I was a child. My grandmother was also a lifelong caregiver for my grandfather, and taught me that values of caregiving and connections to family only get stronger with age.