Twenty-seven million Americans are expected to need some form of long-term care by 2050, but we, as a society, are unprepared to provide that care. To address the gaps in our social-welfare infrastructure, Ai-jen Poo, a longtime labor advocate and MacArthur Fellow, is on a mission to change the way we give, receive, and think about care. In her new book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, written with “book doula” Ariane Conrad, Poo argues that coping with the impending elder-care crisis requires building a new kind of infrastructure: a “Care Grid” that will bridge generations, create sustainable jobs for caregivers, and ensure that elders can age in their communities while staying connected to loved ones.
Poo is the co-founder of Domestic Workers United and the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, as well as co-director of Caring Across Generations, a campaign to change the policy and culture around care work. Her book is available now from The New Press, and she is currently on a book tour around the country, hosting conversations about care and the future of an aging society.
Poo spoke with Michelle Chen and Sarah Jaffe, co-hosts of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, about the book, the culture of aging, how racism and sexism have contributed to the isolation and exploitation of domestic workers, and what else would change in a society that truly valued care. Drawing on her experiences as both an organizer and caregiver, she sees the care crisis as an opportunity to braid the labor, immigration, and gender-equality movements together to empower communities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Michelle Chen and Sarah Jaffe: The premise of your book is that we need a “Care Grid,” a new kind of infrastructure to face what you call the “Elder Boom” of aging Baby Boomers. Why do you see homecare as integral to that model, and preferable to nursing homes and the like?
Ai-jen Poo: The dominant way that people receive long-term care in this country has been through the nursing home and institutional model. And for many, many years, advocates have been calling for change in the nursing-home system because it’s been rife with problems, both in terms of how the patients are treated, and the sort of factory-like nature of the institutions—the way that they can be incredibly dehumanizing—and also the way that the staff are treated. Most institutions are way understaffed.
My grandfather on my father’s side spent the last three months of his life in a nursing home. It was an experience I’ll never forget, visiting him in a room at the back with half a dozen other people, half of whom were completely unmoving, and the other half were wailing in pain and suffering. My grandfather hadn’t eaten or slept for what seemed like days. He was afraid. He was convinced that he was going to die, and indeed he did pass away after three months. It was an incredibly dehumanizing experience and it haunts me today.