PR 321 | Aging

 

Meet Kari Thurlow, the CEO of LeadingAge Minnesota, an association of providers offering services to seniors. Today, she joins us to prove that wisdom knows no age, and resilience is timeless. Let’s break stereotypes, celebrate experience, and build a future where every stage of life is recognized for its unique contributions. In this episode, Kari discusses the societal perceptions of aging, the challenges faced by the elderly care sector during the pandemic, and the resilient spirit of those at the forefront. Throughout the episode, she sheds light on the vital role played by the elderly care community, especially through unprecedented times. Tune in now!

Show notes:

  • 06:35 – Aging: A Universal Experience
  • 18:10 – Aging Is A Collective Effort
  • 23: 21 – We Will All Be In Senior Care
  • 27:54 – Resilience In Leaders

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Breaking Stereotypes: Celebrating The Wisdom Of Aging With Kari Thurlow

In this episode, I have Kari Thurlow. I got to meet Kari when I keynoted an event for her organization called LeadingAge Minnesota. They support the organizations that take care of the elderly in the state of Minnesota. It’s a very daunting field and Kari is truly a leader in that space. She’s the President and CEO of Leading Age of Minnesota, Minnesota’s largest association dedicated to supporting aging services providers.

LeadingAge Minnesota’s members serve older adults in nursing homes, assisted living, independent living, adult day settings, and through other home and community services. Kari has been at LeadingAge Minnesota for over fifteen years but stepping into the CEO position in 2022 after years in advocacy, lobbying, and government affairs. She’s also an attorney and we had that in common. You’re going to be quite moved by the conversation that we have. We touch on some very important things and you’ll enjoy it. Sit back and relax. Buckle up and enjoy this conversation with Kari Thurlow.

 Kari, you have an impressive bio. From time to time, people will read it and introduce you in that way. I always find it a little awkward to listen to people talk about me when it comes to those things. My question to you is, what’s not a part of this bio? Let’s pick one thing that’s not in this standard introduction or bio that you would love for people to know about you at the outset of our conversation.

I’m a recovering lawyer and lobbyist. The one thing that people might guess about me is I was also a competitive debater and was a coach of high school kids before I had kids of my own. That helps me. It defines my communication style, and how I view the world, and able to step into a lot of different viewpoints and shoes and try them on. That has served me well. Shout out to all the debate coaches out there.

It’s interesting you bring that up because lawyers, for the most part, have to have that same skillset because you get to choose your clients maybe. We do at a certain point in our career. In the beginning, we certainly didn’t. We couldn’t choose their cases and the circumstances that brought them into our offices when we were practicing attorneys, I should say. To be an excellent lawyer, you have to work with what you’re given, like a debater. You are given one side of the argument or the other. You don’t say to the debate coach, “I can’t take that side of the argument.” If you do that, you’re not going to succeed.

For me, in the work that I do primarily in public policy, being able to step in and be that connector and say, “I understand that viewpoint,” or at least I can step into it and explain it and serve as a connector for somebody who might have a different viewpoint, has served me well as a connector in this field.

When you said that being involved in the debate and even coaching informed your communication style, can you say more about that, or is that what you were talking about?

It’s partly that. In the world, I’m not going to be political here, but people take up causes and sides quickly. There’s a failure to understand other unique points of view. It’s probably why we have so many difficulties in the world. Leading an association, being able to serve as a connector to lawmakers, and using and leaning on those skills helps my communication style in a way that has helped advance my career and the work that I do.

Kari, I’m asking you for something that maybe you don’t have the CV to support but I don’t either. I still think we have more than enough experience to form an opinion. Why do you think it is that people are taking up opinions as quickly as they do? Do you think that that in and of itself is working against empathy?

We do hear a lot. You’re a CEO and I’m a CEO. In this world of the training and development, learning and development space, we’re talking about psychological safety a lot and things like listening skills and developing empathy, yet it seems like there are a lot of examples around us where empathy is lacking. That’s what came up for me when you said that.

It’s true. I’m a recovering lobbyist. I’ve been a lobbyist for many years and I’ve seen the political discourse change quite a bit. The opinion of one is that our world has gotten incredibly small. This is not an indictment on social media. I love social media. We’re on a social media platform. If you look at an individual social media platform, it is very affirming to a viewpoint you already have.

Cable news has gotten to affirming a viewpoint that you already have. I frequently challenge people to say, “Have you posted anything that has changed your mind lately?” There are very few people who are going out there to look for alternative viewpoints, asking the question of what’s behind that. While communication has become more diverse and there are multiple channels, our world has gotten extremely small. It does impact empathy and our ability to make connections in a way that is not entirely positive all the time.

We’re living in a more insular world, the echo chamber. People use that term frequently, too. It’s interesting in the work that you do in the world because there’s that aspect of our daily living and yet with older people, who are retired or living in assisted living and facilities of that kind, those things fall away and become so much less important, don’t they? The person who’s caring for you, it’s much less important what side of the political discourse or divide they stand in those environments.

It’s true. I don’t think I’m the first person to observe this or even say it but one of the more universal experiences we all have is that we are all aging. Republican, Democrat, Green Party, or whatever independent party you may have in whatever community. I haven’t found a single person who’s Benjamin Button and reverses aging. It’s one of those universal experiences that leaning on this idea of finding empathy and common ground, even if you have two very different people, has worked in this arena for me.

One of the more universal experiences we all have is that we are all aging. Click To Tweet

There must be a lot of lessons from that work that potentially could help people to navigate what seems like a rockier road than at least when I’m going back to my 30s and there was plenty of strife in the world. There were lots of issues. It feels as though the level of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns that I get to be witness to in the work that I do is a great deal more extreme than I recall some time ago. I don’t want to do the good old days thing. I’m not trying to go there. I do want to track what you’re saying about where when we lose empathy, we lose a lot and yet gain empathy.

 We have to come back to that because as right as you might be out to the universe, whoever’s thinking at this moment, even reading this, I hear you but I know my views are right. I have my opinions for a good reason. I know so certain. In the end, we all age and we all face the humility of everything that we’ve amassed and scrapped to obtain. Everything is a process of letting go. That’s universal. There’s nobody who’s going to escape that process of letting go. Isn’t that true?

That’s true. Maybe different cultures approach it differently. There are different traditions and cultures in aging. I’m not an expert here but I would dare say that probably in the United States, we do it worse than in other countries. It’s inescapable that if we’re lucky enough to age, all of the research points to a very similar process. It is so easy for other people to say, “They’re different than me. It’s those people over there.” It’s one of those common threads that if we remind ourselves of it could be important going forward and one of those tools to lean heavily on.

I was thinking it but I’m glad you said it. How would you describe how the US is looking at the aging processes and their seniors? This is the largest demographic that we have in 330 or so million people that reside in the US. The largest demographic is the Baby Boomers. You’ve got a large aging population. How does the US think about older people versus maybe the way seniors are looked at elsewhere in the world if you have experience with that?

I’m based out of Minnesota and there are a gazillion different statistics but here in Minnesota, we have over 1 million people over the age of 65. It’s about 20% of our population. We have more seniors than schoolchildren here. That’s not unique to the country. You can extrapolate to the rest of the country. You’re right. The world is aging. Quite frankly, it’s not unique to the United States. It’s a global phenomenon. While there are a lot of things the United States does right, I don’t know that we do aging very well. At the risk of sounding provocative, we live in a fairly ageist society that doesn’t value the wisdom and experience of aging individuals.

We could point to several examples in media and social policy to illustrate that. This is where my members come into play and about the support, one needs as they get older, and how we support individuals to experience a rich and fulfilling life through the last years of their life. We don’t do that well in so many cases and we don’t support families who want to do it well. If they’re acting as informal caregivers, there’s a lot of room for improvement. No country is perfect but we have other cultures around the globe that may have traditions of valuing elders that we could learn from and impart some of that wisdom in our systems here.

I’m calling more for an opinion or a feeling. Do you think that the United States handles this perhaps differently because people don’t want to be reminded of their mortality? Do you think there’s some element of truth in that? We’re so focused on social media but long ago, way before social media was advertising, it was to be thin, young, handsome, and pretty. Everything was about youth. It’s always been about that or it’s been about that for a long time. Do you think people don’t want to be reminded that they’re going to get old and eventually die?

Maybe. There’s probably part of that. Our economy fuels some of that and how we view productive people in the economy. Our changing values in terms of what we value in this society may put different age groups’ friction or attention there. There are probably multiple factors. The little-known secret is that by and large, if you look at people who study happiness, older people are happier. They have such rich experience. We should celebrate it and do everything we can to lift those individuals who have aged and aged well.

Honestly, the one thing that makes your life better every day, I’m boldly saying this and I know makes my life better every day, is that I’m somehow wiser than I was the day before, the week, month, or year before. I’ve learned things that help me live a better life and also be a better person in my work and whatever it is. Where do we get to a point where somehow or another, that isn’t as valuable when you’re 70 as it would’ve been when you were 45 or 50? It seems a bit odd, doesn’t It?

It does. Not to be political but even look at the discourse around different political candidates as to whether they are too old for office. We can talk about health. That’s different but where the proxy is age is something interesting. We could talk about that on both sides of the political fence. In other positions outside of politics, we have this notion that somebody is too old to give back when we know there’s this huge font of wisdom. We have a lot of work to do here in the United States.

You brought up an interesting point. We’re going right down the middle, not taking sides either way. There is this opportunity for that not to be a campaign issue. Of everything, policy would make the most sense of a person’s record on the job, what they’ve done well or not done well, or what they could do or couldn’t do. All that is fodder. That’s a game. Let’s work with that.

When a person’s chronological age is the issue, and I agree with you, if health or mental acuity is somehow in the mix, it is disheartening to see how much is used. The part that disheartens me more than anything is that young people under 30, as I understand it, are looking at that as the litmus test for whether somebody could hold or maintain an office. That’s a bit scary.

There are youth assets as well. Using the proxy of young, good, old, and bad is a disservice. I think about your theme here on this show about being changed. As I think about older Americans and people, talk about people who have had to manage change in their lifetime. We would be fools not to tap into that wisdom.

PR 321 | Aging

Aging: Using the proxy of young-good, old-bad is a disservice.

 

I was going to ask you that. That’s so great that you brought that up. Do you find that with the people that you work with regularly? You are managing an organization that offers services to the elderly in the state of Minnesota.

Not quite. We are an association of providers that offer senior services.

You’re supporting those folks that are offering those.

We have about 1,200 organizations throughout Minnesota that provide senior care services to seniors in all the different forms that you can think of. They come together in our association and share their collective wisdom. Our mission statement is to transform and enhance the experience of aging. It is a collective effort here in Minnesota.

What do you see with the organization and its members having done well through the pandemic and coming on the other side of it? Where do you see there being some room for growth or opportunity?

I don’t even know if there are the right words to articulate how hard the pandemic was on our sector. Individuals are most vulnerable to the most devastating impacts of COVID early on when we don’t have treatments and vaccines. They held the hands of people who were dying from the virus. That’s trauma in our sector that we’re still dealing with.

Without family, even.

We were required not to allow family members into our buildings because of the spread of the virus. I can’t say enough about the work that the direct caregivers do. They became family for months at a time, combating social isolation. That’s trauma that we’re still working through as a sector as a whole. One of the things that the sector did very well here in Minnesota and countrywide was coming together.

We’re not unlike other sectors where you have healthy competition amongst different providers but you saw a lot of that fade away as people increased communication to support one another, become a support system, because you only understood it if you were in it, and share best practices to help each other who were in crisis. That has persisted in a way that I don’t think you would realize if you weren’t in the sector, which has been great.

The generous sharing between providers in a competitive space is something you don’t see very often. There are things that we could do better. We have a very regulated industry because we deal with very vulnerable people. What I see happening, and I won’t be political here, is there’s this constant push and pull that we have with lawmakers about if we regulated enough, wrap everybody in bubble wrap, they’ll be safe. That’s not how seniors want to live their lives. We need to think and say, “Take a step back from the pandemic. How do we let seniors have individual choice and autonomy and still create safe but home-like environments?” That is work that we haven’t gotten right and need to do a better job at.

PR 321 | Aging

Aging: How do we let seniors have individual choice and autonomy and still create safe, but home-like environments? That is work that we haven’t gotten right and need to do a better job at.

 

I’m wondering about farther upstream that’s even possible in the way of education that would enable this inevitable consequence of a situation in life that we are all going to deal with like the aging of our parents, our aging, and our children if we have children dealing with that. I don’t remember learning about any of this, even reading about it. There was nothing if you weren’t somehow involved in that sector. I heard nothing about it growing up through school and post-graduate courses.

The solution is pretty simple. We’ve already talked about the demographics. Whether we’re in senior care or not, we are all going to have lives and careers that intersect with older people. That’s a fact. We need to do a better job of teaching how to do that. Schools need to do a better job of connecting intergenerationally.

We used to do that organically. When families lived closer together, Sunday supper with grandma and grandpa used to be the norm. I don’t think there is anymore because we’re more spread out. There are wonderful examples of programs where schools and senior care settings are coming together to have intergenerational conversations and where they learn from each other. I don’t think you need to over-program it. We need to value it, lift it, and make it happen.

There needs to be that interaction because it’s not theoretical either. There are plenty of older people around who would love to be able to contribute or volunteer their time or be around young kids, whether they’re elementary or even college kids that maybe don’t have a lot of comfortability around being in the presence of a senior person and who it’s aged. They can share with them things that would make their lives potentially a great deal easier and better.

It gets away from the tropes that you often see when you see intergenerational connections. There are lots of tropes that people lean on in those situations. Reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Aging people are vital. They’re fascinating to be around. Having those conversations is important.

I don’t find memes or whatever humorous. I try to maintain a sense of humor about myself, which is not always easy. Don’t take yourself seriously. When I see that stuff, it does feel awful, especially since there are cultures around the globe that honor the people in those communities who have lived longer and have learned more, not because they’re somehow smarter or better or anything. It’s not us and them. All of it is us.

The person you’re looking at that’s got all those lines is going to be you someday if you’re lucky. How do you want to be treated? Do you want people to look at you like you’ve got nothing left to give and you’re dismissed or invisible? It’s interesting. There’s an old great movie called On Golden Pond. Kari, have you seen that movie?

Yes. Henry Fonda.

He’s approaching 80 years old or something in the movie. His daughter Jane Fonda is in the movie as well and so is Katharine Hepburn. She was maybe a few years younger. In part, that movie is about that. Here’s a guy who lived a very vibrant and successful life, a professor who’s smart and all that. He wasn’t a perfect person, parent, and all that. It wasn’t about him somehow being perfect but the idea that you could get to be at that age and somehow, you’re put on the shelf and not be of any value. He was raging against the dying of the light. He wouldn’t accept it. It was a fabulous movie.

I love that movie. It’s a great movie. I have a feeling that if you ask people, no matter what age they are, that probably is a pretty similar vision to what we all want. Nobody wants to feel invisible and irrelevant. Everybody wants to be heard and feel valued. That’s an important lesson.

Nobody wants to feel invisible. Nobody wants to feel irrelevant. Everybody wants to be heard and feel valued. Click To Tweet

 Kari, this show is about change and resiliency. I’d love to get a sense of your role as a CEO. You’ve got a big board meeting coming up and there’s a lot on your plate in your role. You’re also, as you say, in a sector or an industry where politics play a role. You’ve got to constantly be lobbying, providing public service, and supporting those organizations and your members. I’d love to get a sense of how have you been resilient. How has your association, LeadingAge, been resilient through all the change that’s been around? Maybe you could share a few thoughts on that.

I will never pretend to say that I went through the same trauma as the frontline caregivers did during the pandemic but as our association is made up of our members, that was a time that required resilience on our part. Regulations were changing almost every day or every week, and then we had to translate that. We had to work with regulators and our members. It was nonstop trying to support members and sometimes feeling hopeless because there’s only so much you can do. Getting good at trying to find a stopping point to that work was something that was a challenge for me. We have come out better on the other side.

I came on as CEO right as we were coming out of the pandemic with some tough political battles. Having that gelling together has been helpful. I was talking to one of my staff members, like, “I’m supposed to talk about resilience. What were we supposed to talk about?” She reminded me that there are some core values we have here at LeadingAge around humor and celebrating the small wins.

Not all change is a big change but sometimes the small wins are important. Giving each other grace to be human and emote sometimes. Also, with this attitude of, “We’ll get through it,” because we did. We got through the pandemic not always without bumps and bruises but we know we’re going to get through it. Those are some of the core values that have helped us get through it and will continue to serve us well in the future.

My last question is, do you see or hear from your members that people are hanging on a bit by a thread? A lot of people muscled their way through the pandemic, whatever it took their resilience was to keep going no matter how many traumas they experienced and they were varied. Some people, especially caregivers, experienced a barrage, one wave after another.

Coming through that and being where we are, a lot of people have maintained this, “I’ll keep pressing forward,” without taking care of themselves. It’s a bit of an ironic thing. I work a lot in the health space. Our company gets hired quite a bit to look at how organizations can work well and where health and wellness inside an organization are lacking. It’s ironic, I suppose, that inside of a health organization, people are unhealthy. It’s because caregivers often will put themselves last. They put everybody first before themselves. You’re nodding your head up and down.

The leaders in our field are extremely resilient. I would point to a couple of things. We’ve lost a lot of leaders like people who might be site leaders in an assisted living setting. We’ve lost some of those leaders who have left the field saying, “I can’t do it anymore.” It’s hard to quantify that but I would dare say more than I ever experienced before the pandemic, people saying, “I can’t do it anymore. Burnout.” We see this lagging effect also. I’ll go back to what I shared with you before we started. I count all of these leaders as my mentors. They’re the most talented leaders around with the way they have to manage change so much. There’s almost like this lagging effect.

Caregivers take care of the people they’re taking care of. The leaders of those organizations are taking care of the caregivers. They had to keep it all together. We’re starting to see the lagging effects of that trauma. That still hangs with many of the leaders in our field. There’s still coming out of it. With that said, I am seeing glimmers of that joy that people had before the pandemic, which is nice to see. It’s because they lean on each other and that is different than other sectors. Community is so important in general, especially in this field.

Kari, I’ve so enjoyed our conversation. I appreciate your time. I know you’ve got a lot of work in preparing for a big board meeting. I want to thank you for all the insights you shared, for the work you do, and for the people, the organizations, and the caregivers that your organization supports. Thank you for that.

Thanks for the opportunity. We loved having you at our annual meeting so thanks so much.

That was my honor. What a pleasure.

As promised, the conversation was quite insightful. Kari and I talked about things that we don’t get to talk about, or at least I don’t get to talk about that often. I venture to say it’s one of those things that’s always lurking in the background, depending on your age. Although, frankly, I remember being very serious about turning ten years old.

This is like one of those, “What’s something that people don’t know about you?” When I was turning ten, I remember feeling this weird sense of my mortality, like a scary or frightened feeling about getting older. Imagine that, a 9-year-old kid is going to turn 10. It’s going from single digits to double digits. I hope you’re laughing or maybe you can relate to this even.

Age was something I was consciously aware of at that point. I became consciously aware of aging as I thought about my parents’ mortality a few times here and there when I was a kid too, which was scary. I have parents that are in their 80s and I think about their mortality a long time later. It’s something that’s on the horizon for all of us, whether your parents are still around and you’re thinking about that, they’ve passed, you’re thinking about the lines on your face, or you’re watching your children grow older. You can’t believe they were little infants a minute ago and now they’re graduating high school or graduating middle school, or whatever the case might be.

Age is a thing we cannot escape. Frankly, we wouldn’t want to because the alternative is not an alternative. We want to be able to age and age hopefully in a healthy and graceful way. Yet, the aging process is fraught with challenges. The ones that are obvious are our bodies are changing and we’ve got to let go of certain things that our bodies were capable of doing at a younger or earlier time in our lives.

It might be that it was age, injury, or so many different things that have impacted that. Someone once said to me that the whole of life is a process of letting go. I do believe at some point, we all come to the recognition that we are going to be letting go of a lot of things if we’re lucky enough to live long enough. That is a blessing.

One of the things that we wouldn’t expect that we’d be dealing with as we age and deal with that inevitable change in our bodies would be discrimination or ageism. That wouldn’t necessarily be a thing that we’d think we’d be dealing with and yet that’s quite prevalent in the world that we’re living in and more prevalent probably in the United States and North America or the US than other parts of the world where older people are more respected, revered, and cared for by their families and in other ways that are markedly more effective than the way in which we care for the elderly and seniors here in the United States.

Kari is doing this wonderful work in the world as the CEO of an organization in Minnesota that supports other facilities and other businesses or companies that support the elderly and provide services to the population of the aging community in that state. We get to talk about a lot of the things that are going on in that industry. Kari shed light on what has been a challenge, probably the greatest challenge, that has faced that sector, and in particular, the caregivers who work in that industry who have dealt with so much trauma.

You could call it PTSD. She didn’t use that term but the pandemic truly created so much trauma for the people and the caregivers who were there on a daily basis, holding the hands of people who were stricken with the virus, were leaving their bodies, and having no family around. These caregivers became their surrogate family for days, weeks, and months at a time over and over again.

Those same caregivers are still, for the most part, on the job and putting it all back together. Many have left. The industry has undergone a certain contraction in the pool of people or talent that are working there and the ones that are preparing to come and work in that industry. This was a very important conversation and one that’s not easy to have often to think about our mortality and the mortality of our family members and friends and in our community.

I hope you enjoyed it. If you think there’s somebody else who could benefit from reading the insights that Kari shared with us and the conversation that we had, I’d ask you to please share this episode with a friend, colleague, or family member. We’d love to get your feedback. You can go to AdamMarkel.com/Podcast to leave any comments or questions for Kari or myself.

You can leave a rating. Hopefully, you felt that it was a good and valuable show. If you leave a five-star rating on the platform that you consume, it helps with the algorithm. It helps more people find the show itself. You’re doing us a favor by doing that. We certainly appreciate your willingness to do it. Lastly, we’re always so curious about how you’re all doing checking in.

As Kari and I talked about, people in the elder care space, in many ways, are dealing with that post-pandemic trauma. Many have been on the road to burnout or have been burned out for some time. Some are somehow still working. Others have managed to recover. Some have said, “I can’t do it anymore,” and they’ve left. To figure out where you’re at is important.

If you go to ResilienceRank.com, in three minutes, you could take our assessment to see where your strengths and resiliency lie, mentally, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually speaking. It’s three minutes and it’s entirely free. It’s our gift to you. We’d love for you to get that information and the resources and tools that come along with it. Feel free to do that at any point in time. Ciao. Thank you for supporting this show and the work that we’re doing in the world. We hope to see you again and hear from you sometime soon.

 

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About Kari Thurlow

PR 321 | AgingKari Thurlow is the president and CEO of LeadingAge Minnesota, Minnesota’s largest association dedicated to supporting aging services providers. LeadingAge Minnesota members serve older adults in nursing homes, assisted living, independent living, adult day settings, and through other home and community services. Kari has been at LeadingAge Minnesota for over 15 years, but stepping into the CEO position in 2022 after years in advocacy, lobbying, and government affairs.