Caring About the Caretakers of our Parents, Ourselves

"Wishing you a good death" is not the usual Mother's Day sentiment expressed on that special Sunday in May we just celebrated.

But perhaps we should at least think it if we really want to honor our Moms.

And Dads. Or grandparents, brothers, sisters. And our own partners.

Because if we don't discuss, plan and prepare now before incapacity and uncertainty become painful reality, we will live to regret how our loved ones die.

Just ask Ai-jen Poo. She wrote the book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, (New Press, 2015) after watching her grandfather fade and die in a nursing home no one wanted him to be in.

"My grandfather quietly sustained the heartbreaks of my parents' divorce, the passing of most of his friends and then the loss of his wife of more than 40 years," Poo wrote. "After my grandmother's stroke, she could no longer care for herself. With tremendous courage and love, for years he cooked every meal, talked to her and kept her comfortable until the end. "One of my greatest regrets in life is that we did not provide him with the same comfort and care in the final moments of his life."

Poo won a MacArthur 'genius' grant in 2014 for her work advocating for better pay and protection for domestic workers, including caregivers for the elderly. She is director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-founded Caring Across Generations, an initiative that addresses widespread unemployment, improving homecare workers' wages and benefits and the elder boom.
Poo has joined forces with filmmakers Deirdre Fishel and Tony Heriza, who have spent the last two years exposing "the cracks in our elder care system." Fishel and Heriza say they decided to make the feature documentary, called CARE, after facing that universal baby boomer rite of passage: Aging parents and how to best care for them. "It started from watching our own parents face frailty and the need for care. Then as we got deeper into the project, we saw how many people are dealing privately with these issues - virtually everyone we know."

The project received major grants from the MacArthur and Ford Foundations, but is counting on a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign for post-production costs, including an educational campaign with the film's release. Fishel and Heriza, who have a long track record of making documentary films, call CARE the "most important project of our lives." They're convinced that the country is ready for a critical culture change in how elders and the people who care for them are acknowledged.

Being obsessed with staying and looking young has been the focus of baby boomers -- myself included -- for a long time. Make that a long, long time. Because we are getting old. And older.

Every eight seconds an American turns 65. That adds up to more than 10,000 a day or four million people every year. Of those new golden olden folk, 70 percent are projected to need long-term care or personal assistance.

Currently, three million professional caregivers work in the home care field and an estimated 1.8 million more will be needed in the next decade.

Trouble is, you can make more money walking your neighbor's dog than you can caring for your neighbor's father. $9.61 is the average hourly wage for home-care workers, adding up to an annual income of $13,000. Three of five homecare aides rely on public assistance, such as food benefits, Medicaid or help paying for housing and utilities, a study funded by Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute recently found.
Poo sees the aging demographic shift as an opportunity to "set in place a system to affirm the dignity of people at every stage of life and in every walk of life, and create millions of good jobs in the process."

The CARE film follows three home caregivers through their daily duties and reveals how they can barely make rent. It also tracks the mounting debts of two families struggling to pay for quality care. This equation doesn't add up. If those providing the most intimate care for our most vulnerable citizens earn poverty-level wages and those paying for those services tap out all their savings, who is making money off the final years of our elders?

Just one of many questions I hope gets answered before I get older.