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Aging and Work: Nursing Professor Sarah Kagan

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Sarah Kagan about the impact of aging on our work lives.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Stew Friedman: Why is aging an important issue for employers and employees?

Sarah Kagan: Sarah KaganWe’re seeing a big demographic shift.  We’re becoming much older as a society and all sorts of things cascade from that.  Your example of midlife women having to make choices about career and family responsibilities.

SF: And leaving the workforce because they feel compelled to take care of aging parents, disrupting their career progress and future earnings, as noted in The New York Times article at the top of the hour, For Women in Midlife, Career Gains Slip Away.


SK: You can see that as an economic cascade. It influences them financially but it also changes the workforce. We lose really valuable workers from a sector like education. How do we mentor and support younger teachers if everybody in that generation is busy taking care of mom, grandma, grandpa? All of a sudden we have a dearth of experience that has social implications, financial implications, families suffer financially and our economy suffers as well.

Around the world most elder care is direct care provided by women and the “instrumental caregiving” – organizing things, financing things is being done by the men in the family.  For the most part wives and daughters and daughters-in-law are doing a lot of direct caregiving which means that they have high absenteeism.  The work can’t be done remotely.  Unless you have a great deal of money you’re the one taking your father-in-law to the doctor.

SF: Wait. What about the man?  If it’s his father, why isn’t he taking him to the doctor? Why the daughter-in-law?

SK: Well, we still have a gender divide there.

SF: The study referred to in the article finds the burden is disproportionally borne by women.

SK: This means that stress is borne disproportionately by women, too.  If you’re caring for an aging parent with dementia, for example, it’s a big family stressor.  And if you’re facing that every morning it’s going to take a toll on you – the primary direct caregiver.

SF: What suggestions and advice do you provide for your students and others and what advice do you have for our listeners who might be in a similar situation?

SK: The first thing a recommend is to step back, even if only for one hour, take a breather and think about what really needs to get done and when, what’s a top priority, what’s a lower priority.  Then think about who needs to do it and what resources are available to relieve some of that load. And it helps to write out a plan and assess.

SF: But how do you do that when you’re in the throes of the problem?

SK: Sometime you need help to take a step back.

SF: But doesn’t everyone need that?

SK:  We’re social animals. We need to crush that myth of independence, and say, “hey, who can I reach out to?”  A friend, a neighbor, somebody in a similar situation who can help you step back and take a survey of the situation.

SF: So what more can this “sandwich” generation of women, especially, do to get help so that they can remain engaged in their work lives?

SK: After assessing, the next step is to think about other resources. And we have a tendency to think they have to do it alone. I recommend that people look for their local Area Agency on Aging.  And other people want to help.  Perhaps set up a meal schedule so you’re not doing all the cooking. Maybe the kid down the block who’s thinking about college would like some kind of service experience, resume builder, and something that brings generations together.  Put an 18 year old with an 80 year old and both of them are going to learn good things.

SF: So you’re thinking of the health benefits for teenagers and seniors for them to be working together.

SK: Real relationships not mediated by phones, computers, other technology and distractions and pressures.  Instead, slow it down.

SF:  What about FOMO?  Kids have a Fear Of Missing Out.

SK: I think we have to push back on that. FOMO should be replace by Slow-Mo.  Slow down and recognize that thinking about and caring about someone else, means we’re all stronger, we’re all better off.  The Druker Center for Health System Innovation at The Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) is doing some amazing work with “time banking.”  It turns out that social interaction is more important than physical activity for keeping your mind sharp.  They’ve created a “time bank” where people donate time to help with specific activities (driving someone to a doctor’s appoint,  garden clean up, piano teaching, driving to worship, getting to a friend) and others can use that time.  So it becomes a social exchange.

SF: It’s part of the new sharing economy.

Kagan is a MacArthur Fellow and the Lucy Walker Honorary Term Professor of Gerontological Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing who writes a column, Myths of Aging, and teaches a popular MOOC on Coursera, Growing Old Around the Globe. Hear more from her on Twitter @SarahHKagan and @OldGlobeMooc and read her Myths of Aging column at http://www.calkins.com/digital.html


Join Work and Life next Tuesday, July 22 at 7:00 PM ET on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Herminia Ibarra and Sam Polk.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.


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