Thinking intersectionally can generate insights and models that can help all of us live and age with dignity and power. Failing to do so risks perpetuating generations of social exclusion and driving already vulnerable groups further to the margins.
We both see this in our work to create a more caring economy that meets the needs of an aging population while honoring the humanity of everyone touched by it. The vast majority of us want to live in our homes and communities for as long as possible––connected to friends and family, and able to access quality healthcare and caregiving supports. But the identities we hold play a critical role in our ability to do so.
Structural inequities unjustly set back black and brown communities in education, housing and health care, affecting both how elders of color age, and their longevity. Nearly two-thirds of black elders and 70% of latino elders live just above the poverty line, compared to 44% of their white counterparts. Black people are also twice as likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, but much less likely to seek medical care or even be diagnosed due in part to a long history of undertreatment and abuse by the medical community. A recent NYT article powerfully illuminates how the negative impacts of systemic racism surfaced in one black family’s suspicion of hospice care, and how much having a black chaplain on a patient’s care team can make a difference.
Adding a gender lens, women age into poverty at higher rates than men due to both wage disparities and caregiving responsibilities. Many are forced to drop out of the workforce or take less demanding jobs because care is so unaffordable. Women who stop working to provide care lose an estimated $324,044 over the course of their lives in wages, benefits, and pensions. Many women of color, however, cannot afford to drop out or scale back. Black mothers, in particular, are most likely to be the primary breadwinner in their families and to do it on their own. The catch-22 between working and caring becomes even tighter, and the stresses on one’s health even higher, increasing the chances of aging precariously for older women of color.
Immigration justice impacts older people, too. In New York City, over half the elderly population is foreign-born, while nationwide nearly a quarter of the direct-care workforce are immigrants (and some think the numbers are much higher). Meanwhile LGBT elders face pronounced rates of social isolation and higher rates poverty, and lack access to culturally competent services compared to straight and cisgender people. Our multiple identities must be thoughtfully considered in the services we provide and how we provide them, the innovations we create, and the reforms and policies for which we advocate. In designing solutions for an aging population – and the care, human, and physical infrastructures to support it – we must place marginalized elders at the center.
We don’t have to develop these solutions from scratch. Marginalized communities have responded with resilience, coming together to help each other thrive. Many of our campaign’s leaders are lesbian or queer elders. Some are widows, others are single women who never had kids. The things that we imagine wanting for ourselves as we age mirror the kinds of networks of kinship that queer communities and communities of color have been innovating out of necessity.
Multigenerational living is also more common among communities of color, which are developing ways to save money and stay connected as they age. We’ve also seen in our own research that black caregivers are much more likely to see the importance of public funding for aging and care solutions.
These solutions work because they humanize and empower elders, even those who have significant care needs. They normalize and build on the fact that as we get older, the vast majority of us will need some form of assistance with daily activities. If we feel compelled to ignore these truths, it’s likely in part because of our own internalized ageism and ableism.
Ableism and ageism are closely connected. Just as we are all aging, we all live on a spectrum of disability. The greatest othering that older and disabled people feel may be related to valuing productivity above all else in a hyper-capitalist society––so if your age or disability makes you less productive, you become less “valuable.” We hear this from older people who express anxiety around their “usefulness,” as well as parents not wanting to be a “burden” on their adult children or “the system.”
This belief in human hierarchy is what underlies every social injustice. And why improving the lives of older people intersects with disability justice, racial justice, gender justice, LGTBQ rights, economic justice, and every other freedom struggle. Older people are not just old and do not live single-issue lives. Yet ageism often leads to elders being segregated into separate organizations when their needs are actually central to every other struggle––from housing to movements for environmental and immigrant justice.
Because social movements are often anchored by younger generations, we can reproduce some of the very dynamics of disposability that we see in wider society. We are called now to build coalitions and partnerships that are multigenerational, multiracial, and cross-class––and to create the opportunity for older people and people with disabilities to be at the center of them. Intergenerational and accessible movements and communities will make all of us stronger.