Reflecting on both Martin Luther King’s legacy and the complement of caregivers helping with my father in the final years of his life left me thinking about how the diversity of people from all walks of life creates such a powerful unifying force in society. The demographic bubble of baby boomers now heading deeper into retirement will depend on the strength of that unifying force more than ever in the coming years.
By comparison, it was not that long ago, in boomers’ lifetimes even, that people of color in this country relied on the “Green Book,” a guide that told them where they would be allowed to buy gas, eat and stay overnight as they traveled through parts of the United States. As late as the early 1960s, long stretches of American roadways could leave someone stranded if they were the object of discrimination.
President Lyndon Johnson experienced this first-hand when he asked his maid and her husband to drive his beagles back to the ranch in Texas. They said it would be extremely difficult and explained why. Johnson expressed shock at this personal anecdote, according to his biographers, and was further inspired to push for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thanks to a uniquely qualified president, the planets lined up, but many wonder when, if ever, the opportunity would have arrived again. The Green Book, incidentally, was published from 1936 until shortly after 1964 — when it was suddenly no longer needed. But how close did many of our citizens come to having to still use that Green Book today?
I can’t fathom it when I consider the case of my late father, whose army of people caring for him 24-7 over the last four years, consisted of a rainbow of complexions — a mirror of the general California population. Caring for the elderly is physically difficult work, and it is compounded by the frustration and stress of trying to reason with someone who is confused for reasons they can’t help.
As a society, we need to find a way to pay these people more money. They are worth more. What confirms for me that they are underpaid was the revolving door of caregivers, who rarely stayed on the job for long. That factor just increases what has to be spent on management companies to handle what is the more difficult task of filling the jobs. There are no simple answers, but paying more money would be a start.
Before going to the well of more financial resources, there are some alternatives, such as tax credits or subsidies for family members who have had to leave the workforce to care for elderly relatives. That is a good option on paper but very difficult to implement. How much are we paying and how much work is really being done on a case-by-case basis?
Increasing wages legislatively — like extending minimum-wage increases into some higher tiers — would be more palatable than setting in motion unionization and strikes, such as those we’ve seen from nurses unions. To just pay more money and find ways to subsidize it, when necessary, strikes me as a better option.
Regardless of how we ultimately fill what will be a growing demand for compassionate, dedicated caregiving professionals, we can guess that many of them will come from portions of our population whose boomer parents (or grandparents) once had to struggle to get from Point A to Point B.
For all the discussion of race relations in this country, the fact remains that we all need each other more than ever, and we can’t afford to go back into what was once a dark hole of misunderstanding.