Mairead Bagley is a 22-year-old recent graduate of the University of Maryland-College Park with a B.S. degree in Community Health. She is originally from Boston, MA, but currently resides in the DC area. Previously, she interned at the national headquarters of AARP and has also worked as a home health aide for several seniors. Currently, she is in her final month as a summer intern in the communications department at LeadingAge and spends her weekends as an aide to an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease. Moving forward, she would like to get her master’s degree in public health with a focus in gerontology and hopes to pursue a life-long career in the aging field. 

Tell us about your experience working with older adults?

My first experience with older adults came when I started taking care of my two elderly grandmothers. It was very informal, in the sense that I wasn’t specifically trained as a CNA or home health aide, I just started helping over the summers as a way to support my aunts and uncles, who couldn’t be with my grandmothers all day long. It was kind of a win win situation because my aunts and uncles got peace of mind and inexpensive care, my grandmothers were cared for by someone they knew and liked, and I got a summer job. I’ve always enjoyed being around older people more than kids, so while all my friends were nannying I was doing that. Eventually, I started to work for other families that I found through the website Being with older people all day, helping with their tasks of daily living, and seeing the experience of adult children who have the responsibility to look after their parents all gave me a real-world understanding of common struggles faced by families and the gaps in our system of care.

How did you decide to work in the aging field?

What really brought me into the aging field initially was my interest in end-of-life issues. When I was 17, my dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer and passed away 9 months later at 56 years old. Being as young as I was, the impact that time had on me was really profound. I saw my dad’s experience as he went through treatment and care in many settings- from the hospital, to a rehab facility, to home, and, finally, to being under hospice care. I also witnessed my family’s experience as caregivers navigating that system. I saw first-hand what did and didn’t work and where there was room for improvement. A few years later, when I started working as an aide in the homes of older adults, I saw so many of the same issues that my family dealt with when my dad was sick and started to draw parallels in my mind between the two. Still, I was too young to know what it all meant or how to go about changing it. Then, last year, I read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. In reading Being Mortal, I started to understand that what I had experienced was not unique, that millions of people deal with the same problems as they try to care for someone who is aging, sick, or dying. I started to understand just how important getting our system of care right was going to be, how deeply it would affect so many people. I read about the best case scenarios, about people aging with purpose, dignity, and peace. I started to understand how good things could be if we got our system of care right. And I wanted to be a part of that.

Why do you think it is important to engage younger generations in this work?

There are so many reasons to engage younger people in the aging field and I could answer this question in a million ways, but to me what it really comes down to is that not engaging millennials in the eldercare workforce, at the end of the day, is an inexcusable and almost unethical waste of resources, energy, talent, innovation, and possibility. We have this massive problem to solve of how we are going to properly support and care for our rapidly growing aging population, AND we have a huge group of people searching for jobs, dying to make a difference, who are young and energized and full of ideas. How could we not engage them?

What do you think can be done to bring younger people into the field?

The short answer is: a lot. Mainly, we need to invest in younger people- and there are many ways to do that. Organizations and leaders in the field could:

  • Hire interns and entry-level employees.
  • Become mentors for high school and college students deciding on career paths.
  • Participate in college job fairs and panels.
  • Use millennial heavy sites, like LinkedIn and other social media networks, for recruitment.
  • Reward scholarships for students going into fields related to gerontology and aging services.

I could go on. The field of aging is strapped for resources, and when you’re strapped for resources you prioritize, and I don’t think we prioritize investment in younger people, because we don’t value their strengths. If we did, quite frankly, this wouldn’t even be a question. We are educated, tech savvy, altruistic, and diverse. When the field of aging(and the workforce in general) fully embraces our abilities, younger people will want to enter the field. No one wants to work where they aren’t valued or respected so let’s work on ways for our organizations to become more inclusive.

What do you see as the future of the elder care workforce?

I’m an optimist, so I see the future of the eldercare as a bright and diverse one. I’ve met so many inspiring people in this field who are tackling problems in the most innovative ways, and if their ideas are implemented, I think we will be on a good path. As a millennial, I also have a great deal of confidence in my generation. I think the future is well off in our hands.  As we accommodate more and more elderly people, I definitely foresee a much different system of care. It won’t be one person caring for one person it will be a community model of care that will require a “coming together” of society to support our aging population. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child. I think it  takes a village to care for an elder person too.