My grandmother is 87 and lives in a retirement community in California. She loves to read and watch Chinese soap operas. She goes to church twice a week and likes to play the game Mahjong. She lives a vibrant and fulfilling life.

So, do you want to know her secret? Mrs Sun. Mrs Sun is my grandmother’s carer. She comes to my mother’s home for a few days a week and helps with the cleaning and cooking. Mrs Sun is as warm and constant as her name – always there for my grandmother and my family when we need her.

Like nannies, elder-care providers, personal attendants and housekeepers across the United States, Mrs Sun contributes so much to my family, our community, our country and our economy. But unlike Mrs Sun, most domestic workers are paid poverty wages – when they’re paid at all – with no worker protection or basic benefits. Many are undocumented immigrants, with no access to citizenship. The people who care so much for us are not cared for in return.

I run an organization of Mrs Suns, the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It is a nationwide membership organization of nannies, housekeepers, care workers, and personal attendants, who do some of the most valuable work in our communities. These are the men and women who get up early to take your kids to school, clean your house, look after your ageing parents, and help our neighbours with disabilities to live independently.

In today’s economy, more and more of us rely on domestic workers to make our lives function. They do the work that makes all other work possible. And yet they are woefully under-valued. When Congress expanded minimum wage requirements and overtime protections in 1974, it explicitly excluded two groups of workers: farm workers and domestic workers. Congress effectively decided that farm workers and domestic workers should be treated differently – as less than all other workers. And so they are.

The United States is at a critical crossroads. Every eight seconds, another American turns 65. In the next 10 years, 79 million Americans will become senior citizens. At the same time, more two-parent families have both parents working outside the home. Our need for care workers is rapidly growing. This is an opportunity: to remake our caring economy so that it meets the needs of our nation and domestic workers.

By some estimates we will need at least 2 million new elder-care workers by 2020. We can create a system to bring quality, personalized care and support into every home where it’s needed. That is why Caring Across Generations was launched, to bring together care consumers, workers and families to create quality jobs in home-based care and more affordable, accessible care, supports and services for all.

My grandmother taught me that caring is life’s greatest gift. We can bring care and support into every home, to every kid who needs to be picked up after school, every person with a disability who needs help getting to work, every senior citizen who needs a meal.

We can bring care to every home and treat care workers with the dignity and respect and kindness that they give to all of us.

In a series of blog posts curated by the World Economic Forum’s Health Team, a number of leading voices will present their perspectives on health and healthcare in the run-up to World Health Day on 7 April. 

Author: Ai-Jen Poo is Co-director of Caring Across Generations and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader 2013

Image: Elderly people play Mahjong in Beijing REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon