Build the Grid
Book review by Jude Joseph Lovell
The Old Testament’s Book of Sirach instructs us to take care of our fathers when they grow old. For the millions in the “sandwich generation,” the near future will bring a great abundance of opportunity to do exactly this, if we are not doing so already. This is because the elderly population is exploding in the United States. By 2030, a full 20 percent of the population will be over 65 years old.
In her recent book The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, Ai-Jen Poo, fellow Silver Sager, founder of an advocacy group called Caring Across Generations and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, offers readers some much-needed perspective and positive thinking on this subject. It is a slender and accessible volume that goes well beyond simply taking stock of a very challenging situation.
Poo’s narrative, co-written with Ariane Conrad, explains that although caregiving is the fastest-growing occupation in America, it is also one of the least popular and is even less appreciated. Our national policies and treatment of caregiving practitioners reflect as much, unfortunately. The current federal system of assistance is, Poo writes, “confusing and expensive; [does] not provide sufficient care, and is . . . ultimately outdated and insufficient.” What’s even scarier is the growing paucity of experts to meet the swelling demand. Poo points out that by the same year, 2030, the ratio of working geriatricians to older Americans will be one to 3,800.
All this is to say nothing of the costs. Poo examines the numbers here too, and they are staggering. Financially, Americans are neither prepared nor preparing to take care of the elderly. Part of this is because, unless you are in the upper one to two percent of our wealth hierarchy, retirement is fast becoming a luxury. Since 1977, we are informed, there has been a 172-percent increase in employment after the age of 75. Jane Gross, a New York Times columnist who writes about older Americans, is quoted saying, “Does either of your parents have a half-million dollars on hand to provide for himself or herself in old age?” And as Silver Sagers, we must also consider the costs of our own future long-term care.
If you are a woman, furthermore, you feel all of this even more acutely. Two-thirds of all caregivers are female. We live in a society where it is still unfortunately assumed that women will bear the lion’s share of caregiving, regardless of whether they also work outside the house.
On top of that, a very large number of women caregivers are immigrants. Among other strong cases this book makes is for a kinder and more compassionate immigration system. The diverse and growing elderly population and the immigrant populations “need each other,” Poo writes.
What validates The Age of Dignity for me is Ai-Jen Poo’s refusal to regard the entire predicament as insurmountable. She views the heart of the problem as a cultural matter. Our national perspective on aging and the elderly population must shift, she argues. We must embrace older persons as real peers who offer us value and wisdom, instead of out-of-the-loop relics of the past.
The Age of Dignity lays out eloquent arguments for a number of comprehensive policy solutions. America is in desperate need of what Poo calls a national “Care Grid”—a “new, society-wide infrastructure,” to include an emphasis on protecting elder-care workers with things like mandatory benefits and regular time off. We must also “invest in human potential” by actively working towards integration, education, and workforce development in our growing immigrant communities.
Finally, I appreciated Poo’s rather beautiful appeal for open eyes and ears when the time comes for elder care. “Talk to your parents,” she urges the sandwich generation. “It is so important to bring all persons involved with elder care into the same room.”
My father would have cheered at this advice. As he was approaching his own death from Parkinson’s disease, he and my mother talked to us at length about the whole process. She cared for him lovingly for years and guided him the entire way. More than four years on, I am still sorting through this profound experience. But I think part of what my parents were teaching us is similar to Poo’s broader thesis in The Age of Dignity. Aging is a journey we must all negotiate, and embracing it both in our politics and in our homes is our only sensible option.
After all, building a grid involves drawing lines to connect disparate points—as opposed to building things like walls, which only offer separation.
Photo credit by policylink.org, other unknown.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.