Caring for Caregivers

(Flickr/Emily Michelle)

For three years, I’ve watched my father succumb to Alzheimer’s. Once a doctor and an active community leader, today he has become quiet, less engaging, and prefers to stay home. He lacks a curiosity to explore new things, and often seems to be lost in his own thoughts. He can no longer go out on his own, even to run small errands, because he gets easily confused about where he is and what he is supposed to be doing.

The changes in my father’s abilities have placed a lot of pressure on my mother to manage the household by herself—keeping the house clean, cooking meals, running errands like going to the post office and buying groceries, picking up their prescription medications, and keeping up with doctor’s appointments. My siblings and I have begun managing their finances and legal matters. But I worry about my ability to meet their needs given that I work full time and have a four-year-old daughter. 

In the near future, we, like millions of other families across the nation, will need the help of home-care workers to allow the members of the family to continue working full-time while ensuring people like my father can age in the way that most of us want—with dignity and independence, at home and in our own communities.

It’s a growing industry: With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day—70 percent of whom will need long-term care at some point in their lives—the need for quality home-care workers is skyrocketing. Currently, there are 2 million home-care workers in the U.S. By 2020, that number is expected to double.

Yet as co-director of Caring Across Generations, a campaign advocating for the rights of home-care workers as well as consumers, I’ve witnessed first-hand the low wages, long hours, grueling work, and the harmful work environments that these home-care workers endure.

Despite the crucial work they do, the median income of a home-care worker is around $20,000 a year—poverty wages for anyone raising a family. They are paid so little that half qualify for public-assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps. They rarely receive paid vacation or sick days, and many are subject to termination without notice or severance pay. Primarily women, these workers often do not earn enough to take care of their own loved ones.

Home-care workers’ meager wages are not just an affront to our values; they hinder our ability to attract the best, most qualified people to the caregiving workforce. We all have a vested interest in this movement: aging Americans and people with disabilities who need quality care; families who need care workers they can entrust with their loved ones’ health and well-being; workers who need good jobs and basic economic security; and unpaid family caregivers who struggle to take care of their children and aging parents at the same time.

The good news is that growing national movements are starting to bring the plight of home-care workers into the national spotlight. In October, home-care workers held the first-ever Home-care Workers Summit in St Louis, bringing together caregivers, their clients, and executives in the home-care industry to discuss effective solutions to the plight of home-care workers across the country.

In addition, home-care workers recently joined a national movement for a living wage, called the Fight for 15, joining fast-food, airports services, and Wal-Mart workers tired of struggling to pay their bills and support their families. In more than 19 cities this year, caregivers joined strike lines to demand recognition for the work that they do for our loved ones.

The recent Fight for $15 protests showed home-care workers protesting side by side with their clients, who like me, want their trusted and loved health aides to have decent lives, too. The workers and consumers agree here—it’s time to bring these workers out of the shadows and give them the respect they deserve.

My father is like so many people in America who are aging and need or will need daily home care. The people who care for America’s rapidly increasing elder population and people with disabilities are a mixture of both unpaid family members—like me and other members of the so-call sandwich generation—and low-paid home-care workers. But we as family caregivers can’t do it all on our own: we need the help of home-care workers to maintain our daily lives. Lifting up home-care workers across the country and giving them the benefits, wages and support fitting of the work they do will support multiple generations—from the elderly receiving care, to the parent working everyday, to the grandchildren enjoying the stories, history and experiences of the generations before them.

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