How Can We Better Deal With The Caregiving Needs Of Aging Parents? Ai-jen Poo Wants To Help

Historically, caregiving has been one of the most undervalued professions in society despite being one of the most important, and labor organizer Ai-jen Poo is setting out to change that.

Jun 3, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

Caregiving is a looming crisis in the United States, with the Baby Boomer generation rapidly aging, advances in medicine improving lives of seniors and disabled people, and government cuts slashing funding for critically-needed caregivers and supporters. Historically, caregiving has been one of the most undervalued professions in society despite being one of the most important, and labor organizer Ai-jen Poo is setting out to change that. 

If you haven't been following Ai-jen, you should be, because her work is critically important. She's speaking up and working in solidarity with domestic workers, including caregivers, housekeepers, and so many more, illuminating an aspect of the economy that's often swept under the rug. She's fighting for better pay, better working conditions, and respect, and her new project, Caring Across Generations, aims to reshape the way we conceptualize caregiving in America. 

She was kind enough to take some time out of her schedule to talk with me about Caring Across Generations, caregiving, and labor rights, in a conversation that proved to be totally invigorating and exciting -- we are creating positive change for caregivers and clients alike, and we have the capacity to make so much more happen if we work together. 

xoJane: Can you talk a little about Caring Across Generations for our readers?

Ai-jen Poo: Caring Across Generations is a new national movement that is embracing aging and multigenerational relationships and caregiving, particularly in light of the changing demographics in the country in terms of age and the fact that the Baby Boom generation is starting to reach retirement age. We’re going to have the largest older population we’ve ever had in the history of the country, and it’s going to change the way we live and work and relate to each other.

xoJane: Can you describe the “care economy”?

Ai-jen Poo: One of the reasons we call the domestic work the work that makes all other work possible is that we really believe that if you look closely at the economy and how all other work functions, it involves this invisible structure of care. We call it the “care grid,” all this work and energy being put into caring and supporting members of our families. That work precedes anything else happening: We have to have that work and energy in place, and yet, throughout the history of this country and in most parts of the world, that work has been taken for granted. Not only has it not been valued and compensated accordingly, but we almost don’t even see it.

Now, with women as almost half of the paid workforce and college graduates, society is unable to depend on unpaid labor, and unpaid care. This has created a situation where it’s no longer viable for us to not account for care -- one could argue that previously it was not a sustainable situation, but now, given the changing role of women in the workforce, advances in healthcare, and demographics, there’s going to be this huge need for support and service in the home. People are living healthy, vibrant lives in the home.

Our vision for the care economy is actually being able to make all of that work that is so important to our families visible, and to value it within our society, such that we can create a more sustainable system.

xoJane: Who’s most likely to be a caregiver?

Ai-jen Poo: You know that’s the thing that’s so funny these days: Anybody can be a caregiver. Most care is done by family caregivers. The first thing that people respond with as we travel with the campaign is a personal story about someone that took care of them, or someone that they’re concerned about. Everyone has a care story, whether people are directly providing the care or one step removed in terms of organizing or managing that care.

The paid workforce has tended to be low-income women who usually work full-time, sometimes more than full-time, and are still living in poverty. Many are African-American or immigrant women workers. The workforce has been devalued not only because of the work they do, but because of their social status.

We need to think about the increasing overlap within society. We have a new opportunity to transform what used to be poverty-wage jobs into jobs with a real pathway to economic security. We can create care teams of families and caregivers.

xoJane: One of the problems caregivers, paid and unpaid, face is the lack of relief time and time off. How is Caring Across Generations approaching this issue? 

Ai-jen Poo: It’s a problem for both family caregivers and paid caregivers who are working around the clock shifts. Absolutely there needs to be a relief system. When you start to recognize how much energy and work goes into it, you start to have our systems reflect that. A simple thing like relief seems like a no-brainer, but if you don’t fully account for the labor of this work...

xoJane: What kinds of protections for caregivers exist now, and what would you like to see implemented?

Ai-jen Poo: I would love for these jobs to be living wage jobs with benefits, sick days, and paid holidays. Caregivers need regular relief, and I also believe that we should be expanding the programs that support this care such that we don’t have to deal with this situation with limited funding. We’re trying to say that it’s not just about better jobs, and it’s not just about better programs: Our social programs have to both meet the needs of families, seniors, and people with disabilities who need support and services, and they also need to support people with jobs. These are the jobs of now, and these are the jobs of the future.

xoJane: Do you feel that caregivers and clients have been leveraged against each other to stymie attempts at change?

Ai-jen Poo: Absolutely. I think that there’s something deeply wrong with the politics of scarcity that we have in this country. When I look around and I meet people with disabilities, and I meet care workers, and people involved with this issue, people are so resourceful. In this country, there is so much wealth, and talent, and creativity, and possibility. And yet our politics have been dominated by these notions of scarcity, and austerity. We need to prioritize what matters most, our right to live with dignity.

This is what Caring Across Generations is about -- moving from a politics of scarcity to a politics of abundance. We absolutely resist being pitted against consumers. Workers themselves are so committed to providing the kind of support that people need, and they take great pride in their work, and there is a real teamwork relationship that happens. If you ask workers, they will absolutely refuse that their interests are in any way oppositional to those that they support. That’s the disconnect between the politics and reality that we have to change.

xoJane: Do you have any disability rights or aging rights groups on board?

Ai-jen Poo: We do, and we want to continue to build more of those relationships. Some of the groups we work with include Hand In Hand, the National Council on Aging, the National Council on Independent Living, and then a number of other groups that have endorsed us, although they’re less active, like SAGE and the Hispanic Council on Aging. We'd like to get more active with disability rights groups and that's something that will be part of our expansion.

Ultimately, Ai-jen says, I think the 'Caring Across' part of our name is really really important. Given all the changes in our country, this is an opportunity for us to really find our connections across all of these differences and build up the kind of pluralistic, unified, connected nation that we all know that we need. This is one of those times in history when we can make a huge leap forward: We have to expand the 'we,' when we say 'we' and make it as inclusive as possible. We need to shine a light into the people and places in our economy that have been most invisible. We need to embrace who we are and who we are becoming, and embrace all of the resources, creativity, and talent in this country.