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Aging Isn’t the Problem. Ageism Is.

What will it take for the U.S.’s elders to age with dignity? Activists discuss their work to combat ageism.

What will it take for the U.S.'s elders to age with dignity? Activists discuss their work to combat ageism.

Baby boomers are the fastest-growing age group in the U.S. By 2029, the national population of those aged 65 and over will be 20 percent of the country. What would an age justice platform look like so that elders could age with dignity? Today’s guests have some ideas. Alice Fisher is founder and director of the Radical Age Movement, Penny Cook is president and CEO of the Pioneer Network, and Rachel McCullough is campaign director of the New York Caring Majority.

Laura Flanders: Alright, so we’ll start with unpacking your organizations a little bit. Let’s start with yours, Pioneer Network. What do you do?

Penny Cook: Pioneer Network is a nonprofit. We’ve been around for 22 years now, really to change the culture of aging by looking at the culture of long-term care. And really trying to change the culture of assisted living communities and nursing homes to make sure that elders are respected and that they do receive the type of care and the type of quality of life that they want and deserve.

And Rachel?

Rachel McCullough: The New York Caring Majority is a coalition in New York State of home care workers and domestic workers — the caregivers you’ve mentioned. But also, elders or seniors, people with disabilities, and the massive population of unpaid family caregivers, especially women, all of whom are joining forces to fight for a caring economy that works for all of us.

Alright, and finally, Radical Aging.

Alice Fisher: Radical Age Movement is a new not-for-profit. We’re almost four years old, and our premise is that all of the ills that older people are dealing with, all of these issues stem from one thing, and that one thing is age prejudice.

I want you to unpack that a little bit more. And then I want you to tell me what’s radical about Radical Aging.

Fisher: People do not see older people as part of everybody. They’re kind of like, the other. You know? “That’s not me, those are old people.” Elders don’t get the fair allocation of any resources. They have to fight for every dime. In New York City … less than one half of 1 percent of the budget goes to senior services. Total senior services. And every year we have to fight for that half of 1 percent.

And the radical bit?

Fisher: The radical part is that the people who came together to do this, when we were deciding on a name, most of us were radicals from the ’60s…. I don’t think that a lot of this would have been so prominent in the news and everything if it wasn’t for the fact that we are, as a group of people, loud, boisterous, always demanding what we felt we needed. And now it was our turn.

We’re talking about old people, about age as a homogenous thing, which it is so not. Rachel, can we just address that for a minute? We’re talking about people in cities, people in rural areas. We’re talking about queer aging people; we’re talking about people with disabilities. I mean, it’s a huge gamut. How can one approach work for such a diverse group?

McCullough: Age justice, like all forms all of justice, as you’re referencing, can only be approached from an intersectional framework…. When I think about what we’re called on to do right now, it is to build coalitions and to build partnerships that are intergenerational — or multigenerational, multiracial, cross-class, usually led by women — but that create the opportunity for seniors, or elders, or older folks as well as disabled people to be at the center. And to be the protagonist of the struggle, because our movements so often have struggled to actually prioritize access and accessibility…. We find ourselves even within some of our social movements reproducing some of the very same dynamics of disposability that you see in the wider society, in relation to older folks.

Penny, anything you’d add to that?

Cook: I think it’s so important that when we’re talking about ageism, we also talk about the intersection of ableism. I think that ageism and ableism go hand in hand, that prejudice against people when they have some sort of disability, whether it be cognitive or physical. And we know as people get older, there’s more propensity to have some sort of disability. And so just as the idea that when we’re not “able,” we’re sort of diminished in our society, I think that is even exemplified more as we get older. And so that’s a huge issue.

You just talked about the word “able,” which I think in our economy means able to produce something — labor, products, children…. Are we really talking about our society’s relationship to productivity and profit?

Fisher: In a way we are.

How so?

Fisher: Because that is the underpinning of everything. Old people are looked at as we do not contribute to society, we just take. Which, of course, is not true. But that is the perceived image. Aging isn’t a problem, ageism is the problem. It’s the way that other people perceive us, and assign descriptors to us.

Because there are cultures that do this differently. Who wants to address models that are useful for us?

Cook: I think one of the things that we always look at is, what is going on in other countries? And you’re right, that in other countries — when we’re talking especially about care and support as people are growing older — those services are provided to people. It’s not that it’s an extra service; this is a service that is part of life. From birth to death, there are services in place in Europe for people to have care and support. That’s something that in our country, I think when you reach a certain age … that it’s looked at as “taking.” That we have to give elders these services that they’re not entitled to because they’re aging and growing older.

[Women are] not just doing the care, but they’re living longer. What’s your vision of how we would do this right? You talked about how we would mobilize, but what’s your vision on what an age justice society would look like?

McCullough: At the federal level, it’s many of the ideas that are already starting to percolate in this political moment. It’s Medicare for All, but a Medicare for All that includes this sector, the what we call “long-term care” or “long-term services and supports.” These are the services and supports that are designed for seniors and people with disabilities to be able to access all kinds of care and support, usually in the home.

And you’re saying that’s currently in the conversation about Medicare for All? Single-payer…?

McCullough: A very big win we’ve had recently that actually began in New York after many, many years of seniors, people with disabilities, folks in the caring majority pushing for single-payer to include long-term care. We’ve finally just got it included, both in the New York Health Act — which is the New York single-payer bill — and Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal have now included it in Medicare for All at a federal level. So, there’s finally something beginning to shift in the conversation and a level of inclusion of our communities, and of our sector that also would mean that Medicare for All would be … essentially like a feminist New Deal. A New Deal that would actually transform the ways in which care and care work is understood and valued in our economy…. A sustainable economy, or a caring economy, is one in which we bring care and caregiving from the margins to the center. We need platforms that have that understanding at every level, both from the social safety net to the jobs dimension.

Anything you’d add to that Alice?

Fisher: Just a few weeks ago, I testified at City Hall, and the topic was women aging into poverty, and there’s a lot of causes. We do live longer. One of the major causes is caregiving. Women leave their careers or their jobs to care for their elderly parents, thinking that when they’re done, they will go back to their careers. And when they try to go back, guess what? They’re “too old.” Nobody wants them in the workforce. That one statistic alone shows how awful it will be if we cut Medicare, if we cut Medicaid, if we cut Social Security. And now we don’t even allow these people into the workforce. The other thing I would like to add is that a really huge reason that’s driving all of this is longevity. And that was how I started to get interested in this. What effect does longevity have on our society? Well, it’s enormous. Every demographic has changed: 65 years old today is not 65 years old in your mother’s generation, and certainly not your grandmother’s generation. And yet, everybody from 65 to 105 is lumped into the same category.

So you’re thinking our retirement policies are a problem, too?

Fisher: Oh, everything. Everything. What is retirement?

Cook: Well we would never lump 20-year-olds with 45-year-olds. And that’s what you’re talking about.

Fisher: Yeah.

Cook: We’re lumping 65-year-olds with 80-year-olds, 90-year-olds, 100-year-olds. I think when we’re talking about populations, we have to look at individuals. And we can look at certain cohorts for instance, or we can look at where people are in their life experience. But I don’t think we can lump people together now because of their age. We still have so many programs where eligibility is over 55, over 60, over 65. What is right for a 65-year-old person is not right for a 100-year-old person. We should just be looking at the person, and not at age.

Let’s go back to policy for a second. Am I hearing, “Lift the cap on Social Security payment?” What are some of the practical things we could do here? If we’re thinking about helping a politician to create a platform that would show their commitment to age justice, what would they have on it?

Cook: I think the first thing is including long-term services and supports in any platform. That’s been an issue that is ready to be part of the conversation….


Fisher: Everybody knows when you fill out a form, they want to know your age for some demographic study, or how they’re going to sell you a product…. It’s like at 65, the world ends. Well, now, 65 and up could mean another 40 years. Easily. Every day I get notices about famous people turning a hundred. It’s not an anomaly anymore. And so all of this has come together and created this need and made it public, and made it viewable. The number one cause of bankruptcy is health care, is paying for health care. That’s really sad.

If we get this right, what’s the story we tell the future?

McCullough: Our nation, our society was faced with what many called a crisis. They were using a lot of really catastrophic language to talk about it: the “age wave” and the “silver tsunami”…. Like we’re all going to be under water. And these “takers” are just going to suck us dry. All of our benefits, all of our wealth as a nation is going to get sucked dry. But a movement came together, and it was a movement of people across the lifespan, geography, class, race, led by women, who recognized that this elder boom we are experiencing now … is in fact an unprecedented blessing.

That’s right.

McCullough: And so we figured out how to transform this demographic shift into the unprecedented window of opportunity, and we transformed our economy, our society, and our democracy on every level.

I like it.

McCullough: And we now live in cities that are designed truly for all of us, not just for able-bodied 20-somethings. And as a result, all of us have the dignity that we need.

Wonderful. Thank you all for coming in.

* * *

“The Laura Flanders Show” took a trip to the Bronx to learn how Cooperative Home Care Associates is serving aging communities and the needs of those who work with them by providing quality care through quality jobs and a co-op. Adria Powell is president and CEO of Cooperative Home Care Associates, and Gladys Drew is a worker-owner of the agency.

Adria Powell: At the time that Cooperative Home Care was started, the home care industry was riddled with worker abuses, and we wanted to start Cooperative Home Care to demonstrate there was another way to create home-care jobs, to train workers, and invest in workers. And that if you build a quality job, the workers would then be able to deliver quality care…. So Cooperative Home Care Associates is a worker-owned cooperative, which means that anyone who works for the cooperative can also be an owner. But you’re not required to be an owner. After an individual has worked for Cooperative Home Care for three months, they have an orientation into worker ownership. And after the orientation, they can make a decision about whether they’re going to buy into the company. If they opt to become a worker-owner, the price of one share is $1,000. Home-care workers do not make a lot of money, so what ends up happening is that after they pay the initial $50, the cooperative lends them the remaining $950. And that’s incrementally paid back over a five-year period so that it’s not cost prohibitive for the home-care worker. When you are a worker-owner, you have the right to run for the board. That is the single biggest factor in worker ownership and benefit, because home-care workers are the ones who are the majority in the governance of this organization. I see it a lot in worker-owners. There’s a sense of pride in terms of the work they’re doing and wanting to see Cooperative Home Care be successful.

Gladys Drew: As the years went by, with 1199 [SEIU] fighting and everybody fighting for our position, we have more respect now. They do respect us. We’re no longer a “home attendant” like they’d said. We take care of you. We make sure that we keep you out of emergency rooms, hospitals — because that’s the reason we’re there: to avoid hospitalizations. I think everyone should be a worker-owner because there’s a lot that goes with the check. You can actually say, “I own one piece of Cooperative Home Care.” Because remember, home-care pay is low. So, any type of dividend or extra money that you get is a blessing.

Powell: Being a worker-owned cooperative is one part of our model. I think in general, having a culture around participatory management and an open-door policy where we want workers to come in and express what’s going on for them in their jobs, in their communities, is also part of this equation. Respecting and valuing the workforce, and understanding that we need to invest in the workforce for them to have quality jobs so that they can go out and provide the kind of care that some of New York’s most vulnerable populations need. Today in 2019, we have over 2,100 home care workers, and Cooperative Home Care is the largest worker-owned cooperative in the United States.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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