“The Age of Dignity” Ai-jen Poo’s explosive new book

Ai-jen why did you become involved in the care industry as a cause?

At
a young age I noticed that the work that women do is so central to
everything else in our society functioning, yet it is undervalued and
often invisible. I saw this first with my mom, who worked full-time,
went to school and took care of me and my sister, and then later on I
saw it compounded when I began working with domestic workers who earn
low wages caring for families as their profession, in addition to their
own.  Work that that has historically been associated with women, in
particular caregiving, is the work that makes all other work possible.
The fact that we’ve not recognized or valued that work makes the very
foundation of our economy unstable.  I learned this from another vantage
point when my grandfather needed care and my family was unable to
provide it. We ended up having to place him in a nursing home against
his wishes, where he passed away after only three months.  We’re going
to need more supports for families and our elders, which will require
valuing caregiving in a whole new way. With so many families struggling
like mine to care for their aging loved ones, it is clear we need new
solutions.

The Age of Dignity is a great title. How did the book come about?

Over
the years I met countless inspiring women and men whose stories were
untold, everyone from family caregivers to home care workers to older
adults and people with disabilities, all of whom are connected by the
challenge of maintaining dignity while managing care for our families.
Millions of us — about 100 million of us — are directly impacted by
the fact that our caregiving infrastructure is patchwork at best,
outdated and unworkable at worst.
The Caring Across Generations campaign, which I co-founded with a dozen
national and local organizations, is working to bring caregiving to the
forefront of our national conversation about the future of our economy.
Care touches so many aspects of our lives and society — it’s a women’s
issue, it’s an immigration issue, it’s an economic issue, it’s a racial
equity issue. And of course, at its core it’s about families.  But too
often, we’ve quietly survived our caregiving struggles behind closed
doors, in the isolation of our homes. Our stories and struggles with
care need to be part of the public debate about what working people need
in order to succeed in this economy.

My book, The Age of Dignity,
was written with the goal of highlighting not only the personal stories
of hardship and strength, but the solutions that can help move us
toward a vision for the future where we are all supported to live to our
highest and best potential.

As
a fellow activist in the care industry, the care of citizens at both
ends of the age spectrum is an important subject. But what makes it a
pressing issue?

It’s
a pressing issue because we’re aging rapidly as a nation. Every day,
10,000 Americans turn 65, and by 2030, an unprecedented 20 percent of
our nation will be over the age of 65. Sooner rather than later, we will
have to confront what this means, both culturally and politically. This
Elder Boom will shape our society in ways that we’re only beginning to
understand and grapple with.

In
many ways, these changes present a huge opportunity. Living longer
means we have the chance to love longer, teach longer, connect longer.
But we don’t yet have the supports in place that would enable all of us
to live and age with dignity, with the kind of quality of life we want.

We’re
already experiencing the impact of the Elder Boom. More than 40 million
of us are caregivers, the vast majority for our aging parents, yet our
workplaces and public policy have yet to catch up. We have no social
safety net that provides quality, affordable long-term care.

And
because people overwhelmingly want to age at home, home care is already
the fastest-growing industry in the country, and is projected to add at
least one million jobs to our economy over the next decade. But this
workforce, despite performing physically and emotionally strenuous
tasks, is paid so poorly that half must rely on public assistance to
care for their own families. Many of these care professionals don’t even
have access to health insurance.

I
believe that we have the opportunity to respond to the need by creating
a whole new approach to caregiving, with bold solutions that benefit
family caregivers, home care workers, and the aging Americans and people
with disabilities who rely on assistance to live independent lives at
home and in their community.

This
will require an investment in what I call the Care Grid — the systems,
supports, policies, and programs that can bring quality care to every
home. And this doesn’t only apply to elder care — this infrastructure
would support working families with young children as well.

Critics
of change argue that reform is costly to tax-payers in general and that
the ‘market’ should be expected to resolve social issues to do with
child and elder care. Is this an erroneous thought?

The
market has had many years to address these issues and hasn’t.  Private
enterprise will be a key part of the solution, but what’s needed is
really at the scale of a national infrastructure program.  With 27
million people in need of care by the year 2050, it’s an all hands on
deck situation.  Addressing these issues requires all of us to come
together — families, communities, government at all levels, and private
enterprise. Already, we’re beginning to see really creative solutions
bubble up from the community level, whether it’s the development of
NORCs, the Village Movement, or Cooperative Homecare Associates, a
worker-owned homecare cooperative with thousands of members. Both
private sector innovation and public resources will be needed to bring
these creative solutions to scale.

And
we shouldn’t think of it as extra costs. An investment in home care in
particular has the potential to generate significant cost savings in our
health care system — these workers often are on the frontlines of
health care provision, with a focus on quality of life — the best
prevention., Investing in training and job quality for the workforce
could transform the management of chronic illnesses for the elderly and
prevent expensive emergency room visits and rehospitalizations. And with
the increasing cost of nursing homes, where the average cost of a
private room is approaching $100,000 per year, home care is much more
cost effective, while allowing people who wish to age at home the
opportunity to do so.

The
economic impact of NOT providing affordable, quality child care and
elder care is already proven. The total costs of not doing so are in the
hundreds of billions of dollars every year, in lost productivity,
wages, and benefits.  And from a non-economic perspective, who doesn’t
want to be able to care for our families? Addressing these issues would
give us all real choices that enable us to be free, to love, to plan,
and to have peace of mind.

Why should baby boomers and even younger generations be invested in this subject?

Baby
boomers, especially what I call the sandwich generation or more
appropriately, the panini generation, are the ones who are grappling
right now with how to care for their aging parents. The urgency that
many caregivers feel is real, because they’re living it right now in
their own lives.

Elder
care is an issue that even millennials care about. This generation of
young people is quite connected to their grandparents, in ways that
previous generations weren’t. I’ve met so many high school and college
students who have shared stories about their caring for their
grandparents, or the other way around. This idea that young people don’t
care about older generations is a false one.

And
the young and old have more in common than most people think!
Millennials and boomers are similarly driven by values and a desire to
change the world. Boomers gave us rock and roll and social justice, I
believe they’ll be the generation that changes how we think and feel
about aging and caregiving, hand in hand with millennials.

All of us will need care or will provide care at some point in our lives. This is truly an issue that touches all of us. 

About the book
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About the author Ai-jen Poo