How do We Take Aging Issues Out of the Closet?

On a 24 inch screen, I watched a gathering of experts; government officials, President Obama, and health care providers take center stage in D.C. They shared hopes and possibilities of aging. My heart melted when Ai-Jen Poo of Caring Across Generations and author of The Age of Dignity, said that caring for our family members shouldn't be a struggle. She stressed the need to launch systems to support and value America's 50 million caregivers, whose numbers will double by the year 2050.

I focused on the discussion and flipped from the video to the #WHOCA Twitter feed and back again and after an hour, I wondered how much potential will become reality? By 5 o'clock, I knew the family caregivers and the aging issues were in deep trouble.

It's close to seven years since my dad, living with Alzheimer's disease, passed away. That was the end of my caregiving days (for my parents). Before dad, my mom needed a lot of help managing several chronic conditions. My hope back then, while working full-time, was to find a way to make elder care less of a toll. Family caregiving is a labor of love and never should be one of oppression. But it is for millions.

At the conference panel, Fergins, a full-time employee, and a single mother cares for her father, living with Alzheimer's. She sums up every caregiver's purpose by saying, "It's been very difficult, but he is my father, and he's been a great father, so I do it." My sentiments exactly.

But Fergins' significant worry is the same that mine was close to ten years ago, taking time off work to accompany a parent to a doctor's appointment. Hearing those words hit me hard. After all this time, working caregivers still have that concern? Why is it that we feel comfortable talking about child care at work but treat elder care as taboo and hide it? Caregiving is a natural part of being human, and the recipient's age shouldn't matter.

Fergins said that convenience would be most helpful to her. She's right. I'd also add, a more tolerable and flexible work environment. I was grateful to hear President Obama's words, "I'm going to keep fighting to make family leave and workplace flexibility available to every American." Grateful, yes, but also frustrated because we haven't come to terms with it. I still remember the tremendous worry about my mom while at work. And I remember too well the human resource's response, "We don't allow family leave for elder care." Slam. End of discussion.

That's why Fergins' worry about accompanying her father is real. It's such a simple act, but one that produces terror called unemployment. If it hasn't changed in ten years, what's holding it back? Could it be our perception of aging? That might be the elephant in the room. And if it is, then programs, services, and products won't fix it.

Bottom line, as a nation, we don't favor getting older. We avoid it. What solutions provide answers to an issue that most people turn their backs?

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at length with Dr. John Feather. His group, Grantmakers in Aging, studied the problem of aging perceptions with the help of the Frameworks Institute. It's called Gauging Aging. They found several underlying insights of the general public that interrupt and interfere with positive responses to aging:

  1. Our country is built on "individualism." We believe each person has the right and liberty to be whom and what we choose to be. The attitude leads to "it's not my problem." So, when one gets older, frail, and unhealthy, it's their problem, not mine.

  • The Zero-sum game perception, if one wins, someone must lose. So, if we put funds toward the elderly programs, it leaves little for the young. Our society has difficulty thinking "we're in this together." Someone always loses.
  • The contradictory images of aging; one ad shows a happy, retired couple traveling the world, while the other challenges it with an elderly man stuck in a wheelchair and placed in the corner of a nursing home. It's hard for the public to wrap their head around aging when the images conflict so drastically.
  • Another study that I was involved in, "America has a Major Misconception on Aging." 44 senior care experts gave their opinions about the dilemma. The top insights:

    • "Human beings have a very limited ability to predict or even imagine the needs of their future self. It is especially true when that future contains scary possibilities." Dr. Bill Thomas, ChangingAging.org.

  • "There is not a lack of information about aging issues, but there is a lack of knowledge on the part of the consumer about dealing with aging at various stages." Tom Burke, American Health Association.
  • "If we treated and respected our aging population in the same way we treat the children we love, we wouldn't wait for the accident to happen before ensuring preventative safety." Laura Mitchell, Consultant.
  • "Working families need better tools to plan and pay for their future care needs, and this can only happen when there is a groundswell of public support and dialog." Dr. Bruce Chernof, the SCAN Foundation.
  • Do you believe we need to address the general public's misconceptions of aging? They are real, and the challenge of swaying the majority in favor of it should be our priority. We were successful changing people's attitudes about smoking in public places. It took a lot of time and education. Surely we can start a movement that benefits our older generations and family caregivers.