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It's no surprise that most older adults, when given the choice, say they would prefer to stay in their own homes for as long as possible.
But what if those older adults develop physical and cognitive challenges? Who helps them fulfill their preference to age in place?
If you said "family caregivers," your answer would be absolutely correct—but not quite complete. That's because family caregivers often depend on another group of caregivers to help them support aging relatives.
We call those caregivers "personal and home care assistants" or PHCAs.
We owe a lot to these eldercare workers. But you'd never know it from observing the way we treat them.
Personal and home care assistants are the people we hire to take care of aging relatives when they need help to remain independent in the place they call home.
Each day, PHCAs help our older relatives get dressed. They assist them in the bathroom. They remind them to take their medications. They cook their meals. They do light housekeeping.
PHCAs also serve as trusted companions. They may help our relatives get out of the house for medical appointments or recreational activities.
They certainly help older adults with cognitive impairments safely navigate a world that has become unfamiliar and scary.
That's pretty important work.
You'd think that people who perform such an important role would reap a host of financial, social and professional benefits.
Sadly, that's not the case.
Most PHCAs are low-income women who struggle to make ends meet. Hard as it may seem to believe, most of them do not earn a living wage for all their hard work. Few, if any, receive health insurance benefits through their jobs.
And many work in states that don't even require that they receive a certain level of training to care for a rapidly growing segment of our population.
Through the LeadingAge Center for Applied Research, I've been working for more than a decade to raise the profile of these workers. Basically, LeadingAge would like to:
LeadingAge can't reach these goals on our own. We need your help in 3 areas:
1. Ask questions when hiring PHCAs.
Whether you are hiring a PHCA privately or through an agency, you need to ask questions about the worker's level of training.
Don't assume that your worker has received the training he or she needs to care for your relative. And don't assume that this work doesn't require special training.
Caring for older adults—especially those with multiple chronic diseases or cognitive impairments—is a complex undertaking that requires specific competencies. Make sure your workers have those competencies. LeadingAge will release a list of competencies for this workforce next year.
2. Make an investment in the workers you hire.
As consumers, we're hardwired to look for the cheapest deal when we're shopping in the open marketplace. But in this instance, hiring the cheapest labor is not the best deal for you or your older relative.
It makes better sense to pay your PHCA a living wage.
Paying for quality gives you the leverage to select the most competent and well-trained worker. It shows your PHCA that you value the service that he or she provides. And it sends a very clear message that you're willing to pay a little bit more to help preserve your relative's health and wellbeing.
3. Become an advocate for eldercare workers.
Join a consumer group that advocates for better home care. Talk to your state's legislators. Contact your state's Medicaid director.
It's time to have a conversation about reimbursement rates for home care. We need to raise those rates so agencies can train workers adequately and pay them fairly. We can't expect PHCAs to pay for their own training. They barely make enough money to support themselves and their families.
Unless our families speak up for better home care, it will be very difficult to change the way we train and reward our personal and home care assistants.
Change begins with us. If we value these workers, our society is more likely to support them too.
And let's face facts. Our parents aren't the only ones who need a high-quality eldercare workforce. We'll soon need that workforce to help us remain healthy and independent.
Let's take steps today to ensure that we will have access to a high-quality, well-trained and well-paid eldercare workforce when we need it.