Carolyn Stem has worked as the Program Assistant for the Center for Healthy Aging at the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) for 10 years through the Fedcap Reserve program, where professionals ages 55 and older are matched with organizations that benefit from their expertise. Prior to working at NYAM, she had a long career as a professional opera singer, as well as many administrative roles in companies such as HBO, Science Applications Inc., and various law firms.
Mario Rubano (MR): What are your early memories of older adults in your life? And when did you first become aware of older adults and the issues that are unique to them?
Carolyn Stem (CS): I come from a family where we would have children and older adults together all the time—all age groups. I had nine aunts and uncles who were always around because we all lived in a close-knit community in Lorain, Ohio. The older adults were simply marvelous. They were patient, understanding and fun. As they advanced in age, I was able to witness the changing of the childrens’ roles. This coexistence and constant mingling in the family allowed the children to provide care for the older adults as their needs changed. The children were very protective of their parents, who were generally at home with the family until it reached the point where they needed more advanced care. I am now on the other side of the generations—I have 10 nieces and nephews, 12 great-nieces and great-nephews and 3 great-great-nephews!
MR: What has been your experience as a direct caregiver?
CS: I didn’t become a caregiver until later in my life—in 2003. I had left home at age 18 to attend the Mannes College of Music to study voice here in New York City. I was part of a trend of young people leaving their small-town communities all over the country. From then on, my life was centered on pursuing a performing career. In 1974, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study opera and lieder [German songs] at Hochschüle der Darstellende Kunst in Vienna. During this time, I performed in Vienna, Salzburg, London and with various small opera companies in New York. I also gave lieder recitals and concerts throughout Europe and here in NYC.
‘I work with older community leaders to make age-friendly change throughout NYC.’
My mother and I had always been close, and she had consistently supported me in my career. So, one day, while living independently in a senior housing facility in Maryland, she told me that she no longer wanted to live alone and was going to join me in New York. She had been such a vibrant person, a poet and painter, but being away from her friends in Ohio and struggling with various health issues took an emotional toll on her. She lived with me in my studio apartment for quite a while and I experienced the joys and challenges of providing care for an older adult whom I loved.
MR: How did you come to work at NYAM?
CS: When my mother had to be hospitalized and placed into a nursing home, I saw her deterioration from a vibrant, creative person to one who was withdrawn. She passed away a few years later at the age of 96. In my grief, I received information from my then-City Council representative, Gale Brewer, about participating in a new program called Age-friendly NYC. Up until this point, I had not been civically engaged in my neighborhood or community, but this initiative opened my eyes to what possibilities the city could create for its older generation. I quickly became a volunteer for NYAM’s Age-friendly NYC program and found it extremely exciting, informative and rewarding. At the same time, I started my work as a ReServist with the Department for the Aging’s Intergenerational Department. This was all just what my mother would have wanted for me!
Eventually, I came to formally work at NYAM as a ReServist. My role as Program Assistant comes with many hats. I work with older community leaders to make age-friendly change throughout NYC. Some examples included our successful advocacy for senior swim hours at local public pools and the installation of CityBenches at bus stops and other transportation hubs, to name a few. Currently, I am involved in the Age-friendly Neighborhood Organizations Convening, a monthly virtual meeting that has been funded by the New York State Health Foundation and the New York Community Trust. This convening connects older adult grassroots leaders and aging service providers to increase their capacity to support older adults in their neighborhoods during the pandemic and beyond.
I also help with the dissemination and data analysis of surveys to older New Yorkers on a variety of topics. I attend local governmental meetings and national webinars on topics pertaining to aging. I have given presentations on our work to local and national audiences. I provide administrative support to my team and am consistently learning new technology skills. And since my coworkers at the Center for Healthy Aging are in their 30s, I provide an “older person’s lens” to all of the work we do. At the same time, my coworkers’ youthfulness brings an excitement and freshness to my daily life.
MR: What benefits do you experience, personally, from working in an intergenerational setting?
CS: I have realized that I am working not only for the older generation but also for the younger generation—we are one and the same, except maybe in body. We all experience love, fear, thankfulness, happiness and sadness—no matter what age we are. That never goes away whether you’re young or old. I learn from all generations, and I was once “young,” and I am now “old.” I’ve learned so much along the way.
Working in a multigenerational team allows me to maintain my connections to these different groups of people. I’m thankful for the opportunity to continue my intergenerational associations with life.
MR: Are there any particular challenges you have found in being part of a multigenerational workforce?
CS: Yes, there are certainly challenges. When any generation is impatient with another generation, there can be a lack of understanding or empathy. From an older person’s perspective, one challenge I see is trying to understand the excitement and innovative thinking of a younger person. Conversely, the lack of empathy from a younger worker to an older worker can make an older person feel insecure in who they are. But when a mutual understanding happens, it’s a beautiful thing.
'The world is made up of both the young and the old and in between, and the workforce should reflect that reality.’
A mature person has lived their whole life and has formed who they are in their minds. If a young person challenges that persona, or the skills or strengths they always assumed they had, then it can be intimidating and create a lack of confidence in the older person. A younger person is still creating who they are and might not understand the older adult’s perspective. Lived experience does a lot for you in many different ways. Looking at that older person, you can’t forget that there’s a whole person in there with a rich personal and professional history.
MR: How do you think organizations and companies could benefit from actively pursuing a multigenerational workforce that is inclusive of older adults?
CS: Oh, older adults have so much to offer! They are generally more established in their lives and personalities and less tempestuous than the younger generation. Less “let’s jump in and do it” and more “let’s take our time and think this out.” In the scheme of things, no matter the company, the understanding of different generations is very important in creating successful endeavors. Employees that have been in an organization for many years carry institutional knowledge that a new hire simply does not have.
After all, the world is made up of both the young and the old and in between, and the workforce should reflect that reality. I think companies and organizations can greatly benefit from having a multigenerational workforce, as long as they actively work to promote intergenerational understanding.
MR: You are committed to intergenerational programming, especially as it applies to the arts. Can you share an experience you had that shaped how you value the role the arts can play in bringing different generations together?
CS: I love the concept of master and apprentice, especially in the arts or in any form of creative craft-building. I have personally experienced this throughout many stages of my life as an opera singer. The sharing of one’s talent with a different generation can excite you and widen the perimeters of the arts, taking it to new horizons. The master/apprentice relationship is the original intergenerational work dynamic. Not only is expertise created and developed, but it breaks down barriers and improves ideas.
MR: Anything else you would like to add?
CS: Yes, I just want to acknowledge my mother and the role she had, knowingly and unknowingly, in shaping my operatic as well as my aging services career. This was my first and most precious intergenerational relationship, and I am one lucky daughter.
Mario Rubano, MPH, is a policy associate with the New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for Healthy Aging.
Photo: Carolyn Stem at her desk at NYAM.
Photo courtesy of NYAM.