How Negotiating Care For the ‘Silver Wave’ Can Lead To Real Work/Life Balance

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This post originally appeared on Forbes on September 7, 2017. Read it there. 

What’s the secret key to achieving work/life balance? Asking for help. The Silver Wave – or generation of people 65 years or older – are poised to become one of the largest population segments on the planet in the next 20 years and are projected to account for one-third of the population by 2035. That aging population also means working people migth find themselves with a new type of family dependent. So how do we manage our own careers while also becoming the caregivers of our aging parents? Taking the next step in our careers might include the help of domestic workers — nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers — to support real work/life balance.

It makes sense to think about elder care with Grandparents Day coming up on September 10, and I reached out to an expert in understanding how aging is affecting the United States workforce. Ai-jen Poo is a thought leader and activist for the elderly and the caregivers that support them. She is also the author of The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom In a Changing America. Poo is the Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and because of her work around elder and caregiver advocacy, she received a MacArthur Fellowship. She is also the founder and co-director of the Caring Across Generations campaign. For the past several years, Caring Across Generations has celebrated Grandparents Day to encourage cross-generational storytelling, and is always held on the first Sunday after Labor Day. In honor of the holiday, Poo and her colleagues have launched a postcard campaign, which helps send postcards to their Senators about policies that support the health and well-being of older people.

Poo shows us that bringing in the help of caregivers can teach us something about creating not just a typical win-win outcome in negotiation, but sometimes a win-win-win outcome in supporting working families, elderly parents, and the caregivers who help expand what can be possible for working people.

Tanya Tarr: What’s unique about the culture of caregiving and domestic workers?

Ai-jen Poo: Our industry is wired so differently from other workplaces. Walking into any neighborhood, it’s impossible to know which homes are also workplaces, because it’s not like they’re listed anywhere. The employers are families in need of care and support, who don’t think of themselves really as employers. Most of them go to work for someone else every day. And yet it’s work. It’s real work. We argue that it’s some of the most important work in our economy because it makes everything else possible. If you think about elder care for example — your work is about ensuring that the older person you care for can live with dignity. And their families members can have peace of mind. So in terms of the culture in our industry, it’s very distinct and it actually creates a lot of room for negotiation and nuance, and opportunity to find win-win scenarios.

Tarr: Win-Win scenarios are the ideal outcome of every negotiation. Can you give us an example of what this looks like for domestic workers?

Poo: We had many domestic workers asking for training in elder care, even though they were originally hired as nannies or housekeepers. So for instance, families were asking their housekeepers for help with care for their mother with Alzheimer’s’ or their grandmother who just came back from the hospital after a stroke. It’s natural that this would happen because you would rely upon people you already trust to help meet those needs.

We realized that what was happening was this workforce was on the front lines of a major demographic shift happening in our country, where people are living longer than ever before. The first Boomers are turning 70 at a rate of 10,00 people per day, which creates a huge and growing demand for care, particularly home-based care because people don’t want to go to nursing homes anymore.

We realized there’s going to be a huge need for home-based care, and we have this workforce that is both underprepared and undervalued, and that there’s actually a win-win here. If we could figure out how to transform these jobs into good jobs that are valued and seen as professional jobs, we could also help meet a huge need on the part of families. We could transform a dynamic where usually the workers are pitted against the families or the employers and actually figure out that there’s an agenda here that brings us all together.

So in some ways, it’s a win-win-win. The consumers have more choice to age at home, domestic workers enjoy better jobs and recognition as professionals, and the working members of the family get the support they need to keep working, knowing their loved ones are in good hands. Even more than that, there are clear quality of life and health outcomes that are possible here, when caregivers are able to help manage chronic illnesses, ensure good nutrition and medications are on schedule. We can even save the health care system money by preventing unnecessary hospitalizations and institutionalization. What is better prevention than good care at home? It actually is strengthening the workforce and creating more options for working families, and improving quality of life and health, while saving money. It is a win-win-win.

Tarr: Are there resources that employers of caregivers can look to, to help make sure that they are creating a situation that is respectful and fair for their employees?

Poo: What we realized is that when people are hiring caregivers, they want to do the right thing but are unclear what that really means. So we created this simple framework, which is sort of like the “stop, drop and roll” of fair-care relationships. We launched a campaign called the “Fair Care Pledge” with Care.com and a domestic employer association, Hand in Hand. The pledge includes fair wages, paid time off and a clear work agreement, which are the three core elements to a healthy relationship with your caregiver in the home. We’ve been asking families to take a pledge to make those commitments, and we now have more than 200,000 families that have taken the pledge.

Tarr: It’s interesting to see that you were able to develop a partnership without being adversarial. What helped you do that?

Poo: We’re in a moment where everything is so polarized and oppositional. What we have to do in this moment, more than ever before, is figure out the places where our interests come together. Care is one of those issues that touches everyone. Everyone’s got a care story; a universal story or experience provides a great context to start a negotiation. And everyone feels more comfortable in a negotiation or a collaboration when it feels like there are a lot of choices. So you want to create more choices for people.