Stories From The Field: C. Grace Whiting
C. Grace Whiting, J.D., is the President and Chief Executive Officer at the Alliance, where she continues her tenure after serving in various roles including most recently as Chief Operating Officer. She has also contributed to several national reports on caregiving, including Caregiving in the U.S. 2015, Cancer Caregiving in the U.S. with the National Cancer Institute and Cancer Support Community, and Dementia Caregiving in the U.S. with the Alzheimer’s Association. Grace has spoken on caregiving at national and international conferences, including the 7th International Carers Conference in Adelaide, Australia and at three national summits at the National Institutes of Health. In prior roles in Washington, she worked at Leaders Engaged on Alzheimer’s Disease (the LEAD Coalition) and the Alliance for Home Health Quality and Innovation. Grace is a graduate of Louisiana State University and the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. She is a licensed attorney with the D.C. Bar and member of the American Society on Aging and the American Society of Association Executives.
How did you decide to work in the aging field?
I have been interested in aging since my first job out of college, where I sold sub-prime loans through Wells Fargo Financial. Several of my clients at the time were older adults — I remember one couple in particular who had refinanced their family home to pay for their medical bills. Those experiences stayed with me and when I got to law school, I studied family and disability law and took several courses in estate planning.
It wasn’t until I moved to Washington that I really got involved with the aging community. It’s just a good fit for me. I’m a bit of an “old soul” – my playlist is mostly jazz and swing from the 1940s – 60s, I love classic films, and I love t.v. shows that show aging in a positive way. My favorite right now is Netflix’s Grace and Frankie because it makes it look like so much fun to grow older.
Why is the training of the health care workforce to care for older adults so important?
It’s a sheer numbers game — roughly 34 million people are providing unpaid care to an adult over 50. By mid-century, one in five people in the United States will be over 65 (myself included if I’m lucky!). And for the first time in our history, we have more people growing older than babies being born as family size continues to shrink.
From the Alliance’s perspective, families and friends need training to be good partners in care. Many caregivers conduct medical/nursing tasks without any training from professionals. They also support older adults in everything from managing finances to transportation to implementing a plan of care.
Love is an important part of the caregiving relationship, but love alone doesn’t teach a caregiver how to transfer their mother from wheelchair to the bed or how to recognize the signs of dementia. Evidence-based interventions for caregivers not only helps to improve outcomes for the older adult, they also help to bring peace to the caregiver and reduces their stressors about being good partners in care.
What is NAC’s mission?
Our mission is to advance family caregiving through research, innovation, and advocacy. Part of what makes the Alliance unique is that we’re not consumer-facing; the Alliance is a coalition of more than 60 national organizations, non-profits, and federal agencies dedicated to improving the family caregiver’s quality of life. We want policymakers, health care providers, advocates, corporations, and professionals who serve caregivers to work together to empower families and friends to provide care in a meaningful and positive way.
How does NAC work to support the eldercare workforce and older adults?
We think a lot about research that can articulate the touchpoints between a family caregiver and the systems that support people with health or functional needs. For example, many physicians and clinical providers don’t formally acknowledge the family caregiver as a partner in care. So imagine the woman in the hospital, being treated for a fall and discharged to home, but the caregiver has not been noted in the medical record, briefed on discharge, or connected with long-term services and supports that may be available through the local Area Agency on Aging. Have we asked the caregiver if they want to be a caregiver, and explained their role in the care plan? Have we equipped the family caregiver to support the older adult so that she doesn’t fall again?
Projects like Caregiving in the U.S. 2015 that we conducted with AARP work to answer these questions and to quantify the impact of caregiving on our society. The Alliance relies on research to engage in federal advocacy that supports programs and protections for caregivers. We also serve as Secretariat of the International Alliance of Carer Organizations, which brings together NGOs from 15 member countries to identify common global solutions for caregivers.
What do you see as the future of the elder care workforce?
Technology can be a game changer if we use it correctly. Tech needs to replace or simplify the tasks that we are doing as providers of care, rather than creating new problems to be solved. I’m hopeful that companies will incorporate aging into their existing use cases, rather than putting older adults in a silo. We see companies like Lyft and Uber thinking about this in the transportation space and others should continue to think about how to craft innovative solutions that are age-friendly.
The other piece of workforce that can’t be ignored is changing demographics. Our society is more diverse and our family sizes are shrinking. Our workforce is shrinking. Is there a way that our workforce can think more creatively about how we can care for each other? Intergenerational housing, volunteer caregiving, and cultural competency will become bigger factors in how we provide care to older adults if current trends continue.
In the field, we talk about family caregivers as people who are either “family of kin” or “family of choice.” In the future, the family we choose could become even broader — perhaps we choose to care for the isolated neighbor down the hall or the person with dementia at the local farmer’s market or even help the caregiver in our life take a break for a bit while we provide respite. A better, broader world of caring — that’s a future I can get excited about.