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Gerontologist helping local seniors

If Mariam Larson had her way, people in the workplace would talk more openly about caring for their elderly parents.

If Mariam Larson had her way, people in the workplace would talk more openly about caring for their elderly parents.

"If I had a mission, it would be that I want people to put pictures of the older people in their lives in their cubicles," she says over coffee at a Sapperton caf. "I want you to have a picture of your grandma and grandpa or your mom and your dad."

Larson, a 53-year-old Royal City resident, is an independent consultant specializing in gerontology, the study of aging. She leads two seniors' planning tables: one in Burnaby, the other in New Westminster.

Larson likens the visibility (or invisibility, rather) of elderly family members in one's work life to the way children used to be an unspoken subject between women in the workplace.

"In the same way 30 years ago, people didn't talk about their kids at work, they are not talking about their parents at work," Larson says.

Three decades ago, women would sneak in a phone call around 3 p.m., making sure the kids got home from school OK, Larson says. Over time, workplaces became more "family-friendly;" pictures of kids adorned cubicles, and people would speak openly of their families. That's something Larson would like to see happen with the elderly family members, who may be relying on their adult children for help. She'd also like those conversations to happen within the family, across generations.

With advancements in health care, people in general are living longer, and cancer is not always the death sentence it used to be. That leaves elderly family members around longer, sometimes relying on care from loved ones. But those family members may live far away, Larson says. Women - the traditional caregivers in the home - are now working more and having children at a later age. Both parents may have little ones of their own to deal with while caring for aging parents. These are just some of the dynamics that Larson says put pressure on caregivers, and that's something people need to talk about more, as it impacts the workplace and productivity, absenteeism and employee retention.

"It's a completely changed landscape," Larson says. "We have never had a population age like this before. This is unprecedented. We don't have a roadmap for negotiating care for decades."

Andrew Wister, chair of the gerontology department at Simon Fraser University, says that since the 1990s, there's been a steady increase in the number of hours people are working, and the economic downturn of the past few years may enforce that trend.

"We're probably going to see a continuation of more and more people remaining in the workforce in some capacity longer," he says. That means the age group more likely to be caring for elder parents - people in their mid 50s and older, for example - will be on double-duty, holding down a job and taking care of family members. Wister says various levels of government are cognizant of this, but workplaces need to offer more options.

"What we have to see happen is greater flexibility with respect to people's jobs so they can balance work and care-giving responsibilities," he says.

Things like flex time or the ability to work from home may help people with caregiver responsibilities.

But not everyone is convinced it's an issue, something Larson's seen first-hand during years of delivering workshops on the subject to seniors' centres and corporations. She may encounter a manager or employee at a company who thinks that elderly family members are not a concern in the workplace, when in fact they are - people just aren't talking about it. And those employees could be feeling anxiety or fear when a loved one across the country is dealing with serious health issues.

Elder care and its impact on the workplace is just one of several issues Larson highlights when discussing seniors. As coordinator for the two planning tables - the New Westminster's Seniors Planning & Action Network and Voices of Burnaby Seniors - Larson sees issues in both communities, and they are not always the same. For instance, transportation and housing are more prevalent concerns in Burnaby but less so in New Westminster. Seniors in both cities identify social isolation and accessibility (in terms of getting around the city) as important issues.

Both tables, funded by the United Way, bring local seniors together with service providers - like Fraser Health or TransLink, for instance - to talk about the issues that matter to them most. The tables, under the leadership of local seniors, have helped transform the community, Larson says, and they are always welcoming more volunteers. The commitment involves five to six meetings per year and various sub-committee meetings.

"It's a seniors-driven thing. Both tables are action oriented," Larson says. "They want to change things. We have actually changed communities with the work that we've done."

Some examples of that include the IMBY information fairs, which have connected hundreds of New Westminster seniors to services. (IMBY stands for In My Back Yard, as opposed to NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard) In Burnaby, the table spurred on a project that assessed how accessible the Edmonds area is for pedestrians, some of whom may be getting around with canes, walkers and wheelchairs.

To get involved in either of the planning tables, contact Larson at 604-515-1718.