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Connections Q&A: Social Justice and Equity in Aging

Stria Staff September 3, 2018
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The reality is that today’s older population is divided. When it comes to a range of issues—financial stability, affordable housing, access to healthcare, availability of technology, quality of care—we see one group of people who are aging “successfully,” while others are being left behind. We asked five experts what they think Stria readers should understand most right now about social justice and equity in aging.

Stria’s “Connections Q&A” series gathers perspectives from across the field on a single topic. Here, we asked Sarita Gupta of Jobs With Justice, Robert Egger of L.A. Kitchen, Tim Johnston of SAGE, author Elizabeth White and Toni Calasanti of Virginia Tech to share their perspective on equity in aging. Here’s what we heard.

Sarita Gupta, Executive Director, Jobs With Justice and Co-Director, Caring Across Generations

A lifetime of inequality—whether gender-based, racial or economic—often compounds in old age. Add to that the unique cultural diversity of America, and it becomes critically clear that we cannot thrive on one-size-fits all care solutions as our nation ages.

In some Somali immigrant communities in Minnesota, for instance, a lack of awareness around Alzheimer’s as a disease, and a cultural stigma around its symptoms, has led to the burden of care falling on the women of the family with no other formal support, let alone treatment. An older Vietnamese woman recently told me of an incident where she was able to engage with the system, but poorly. After being turned away by her local hospital because of her heavy accent despite having lived here for decades, the community clinic they directed her to ultimately didn’t have the resources to help her. Over time, she says that her providers have engaged more with her English-speaking daughter to the point where it felt like she was becoming disempowered in her own care.

We must meet people where they are to provide the best care, but we must also challenge our assumptions. Increasing cultural competency at the point of care, while addressing broader inequality at the systemic level, will be key to ensuring that what you look like or where you come from does not determine whether you can age successfully and with dignity.

Robert Egger, President, L.A. Kitchen

Of all workers in America between 45-60, one half don’t have $10K in the bank. Sadly, and predictably, this will lead to an unprecedented spike in seniors (primarily women, who outlive, and outnumber, men) who will be financially unprepared for the extra years science will give them. And while this will test our country in multiple ways, there are amazing opportunities to engage aging Boomers in social justice work and self-efficacy.

Older voters are the most reliable voters, so our great task to help the Boomers rediscover their activism, and find common ground with younger voters, so that we can build an intergenerational political alliance to preserve the environment, fight to maintain funding for education and proven social welfare programs, as well as equal access to healthcare. Plus, Boomers are already technologically sophisticated, so sharing ideas, building coalitions and channeling “the deepest well of life experience in the history of the world” won’t be as hard as we might think. Let’s get to it!!!

Tim R. Johnston, PhD, Director of National Projects, SAGE

In my role as the director of the LGBT cultural competency training and credentialing program SAGECare, I have the opportunity to work with aging service providers across the country. When I gather staff together for a training it is common for someone to say, “I’m not sure why I need to do this training. I treat everyone the same.” While I understand and applaud the desire to treat all older adults equally, truly reaching and supporting LGBT older adults requires that we strive for equity.

For example, a retirement community may have a policy that says all couples have the right to privacy. Different-sex and same-sex couples have the same rights on paper, but if staff do not enforce that policy for same-sex couples. Or if those couples fear bullying or reprisals for asking for privacy, they are not being treated equally in practice.

Equity in this case requires special training staff and intensive conversations with residents to ensure that all couples are treated with dignity and respect. Equity requires that every time we think we are treating a diverse group of older adults the same or equally, we really ask ourselves if that commitment is happening in practice.

Elizabeth White, author and advocate

There’s a misconception that the retirement income crisis is only a problem for low-wage workers and a few middle-class bad apples who contributed to their financial troubles by poor planning and feckless/irresponsible behavior. “It’s time for you to live in a low-income efficiency and eat ramen noodles,” as one person wrote me recently, reflecting the all-too-common frame of the deserving and undeserving poor, which emphasizes bad character versus bad policies and shames many into silence.

The truth is millions of boomer age Americans are facing a massive retirement savings shortfall. According to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research 54 percent of middle-income households are at risk of not being able to maintain their current standard of living in retirement. For low and high-income households, that number is 56 and 41 percent respectively.

Millions of near retirees will need affordable housing, now in extreme short supply, and to find work to make ends meet despite rampant age discrimination in hiring. To the extent that public and private sector policy is shaped by the view that people in financial jeopardy are there primarily because of their personal moral failings, and not because of systemic factors, we will not see the bold, game changing actions and programs needed to overhaul the social and economic structures that created the conditions for the retirement income crisis in the first place.

Toni Calasanti, Professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech and GSA Fellow

All age groups can be characterized by the intersections of multiple statuses such as gender, class, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The ways in which these interact influence how people age; for example, the greatest financial inequalities occur in later life. This raises two issues related to social justice and equity.

First, given this diversity of older people, we should recognize multiple ways to age. One need not “age successfully” according to an ideal based upon white, professional-class consumerism that prioritizes individual independence and self-reliance above all else. Why honor that as the right way to grow old? Instead, we should value and be concerned with diverse ways to age, and ask—and here is the second issue–do different groups of people have the resources to age as they wish? What are the opportunities and barriers diverse groups face as they age? Social justice requires providing all groups with the resources they need to grow old in manners that suit them, with a decent quality of life, while also valuing all groups of old people.

We need to value old age itself, and for all of its diversity, while also ensuring groups equal opportunity to become old.