Caregiving cooperative taking shape

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A group of local residents is forming a caregiving cooperative, an employee-owned business providing in-home care services.

Led by Kippi Waters of Port Townsend, the group is working closely with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center and has assembled a list of 35 potential members, the majority of whom are skilled caregivers, Waters said.

Caregiving – taking care of the elderly or people with disabilities – includes assistance in the tasks of daily living, ranging from cooking and cleaning to bathing, dressing, personal hygiene, medication reminders, errands, transportation, companionship and cultural outings.

The future cooperative's steering committee met July 8 at RoseWind Common House in PT, joined by Jack Gordon, who leads the RoseWind co-housing community's task force on aging in place, and potential member Merilee Nyland-Evans, a local caregiver who became a certified nursing assistant last winter and plans to go to nursing school. Steering committee members include home-health worker Laura Ovette; Birgitta Onnemyr, a part-time caregiver who also teaches special education in the Port Townsend School District; and Deb Wiese, a local poet and playwright who cared for her mother when she was in hospice.

"Our economy needs to start going in a more cooperative direction," Wiese said, noting that there are only five or six caregiving cooperatives in the U.S., one of which is located in Bellingham: the Circle of Life Caregiver Cooperative.

"At Circle of Life, the caregivers own the agency," Wiese said, and the worker-owners hire the administrators. This month, the local cooperative's steering committee plans to take a "field trip" to Bellingham to learn all it can from Circle of Life, from employee manuals to financing to policies.

Deborah Craig, who is on the steering committee but was not present at the July 8 meeting, worked at Circle of Life and now is a cooperative development specialist at the Northwest Cooperative Development Center in Olympia.

"Cooperatives adhere to seven basic principles, and one of them is cooperation among cooperatives," Craig said.

"It's so exciting to work with this group," she added. "This is a group of independent caregivers, so they are already making a fair wage ... they are thinking about tomorrow, about the care that's going to be available for them in the community that they're going to live in."

BUSINESS MODEL

"The home care industry benefits from cooperatives," Waters said, because cooperatives keep their profits within the community, returning them to the co-op through days off, bonuses or continuing education, while big corporations take the profits elsewhere.

Caregivers earning a living wage is not the norm, Ovette said; most start at less than $11 per hour. "It's not just about the money, but the money matters."

"The co-op gives caregivers dignity, and they, in turn, can give dignity to their clients," Wiese said

The cooperative business model, Craig said, "lends itself perfectly to this industry. Caregiving is different than a lot of jobs. It's more of a calling," Craig said. "The model serves both the caregivers, who want to give good-quality care, and it serves the client, who wants people that will stick with them."

Nationwide, the turnover rate in the home care industry can be as high as 70 percent, Craig said. "At Circle of Life last year, it was 11 percent.

"A lot of caregivers get frustrated working for certain agencies," Craig said, because they feel restricted by their employer, actually prevented from giving the best possible care.

Other agencies offering services in Port Townsend and Jefferson County include nationwide corporations ResCare and Home Instead Senior Care; and regional companies CareGivers Home Health and the Korean Women's Association.

"Everybody's desperate for employees," Ovette said, observing that ResCare staged a hiring fair July 7. There are five classified ads relating to caregiver openings in the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader's July 8 edition.

LICENSING

The Port Townsend group is now working toward getting a local business license and a home care agency license from the state Department of Health and Human Services, which costs about $1,700 for the size of agency they're trying to form.

The state license requires all caregivers to complete home care aide (HCA) training, which takes 75 hours. Agencies may hire uncertified caregivers if they receive certification within a set time period.

HCA is the minimum required to work for any licensed agency, Ovette explained. With an additional 20-hour "bridge" course, a caregiver can become a nursing assistant certified (NAC), formerly known as a certified nursing assistant (CNA).

Locally, training is available at Peninsula College, Olympic College and Life Care Center, as well as at some private companies, Ovette said. Because the cooperative is to be licensed, "everyone will have to be certified," she said. The federal government also requires background checks. The cooperative's steering committee group discussed possibly requiring additional training in professionalism or specialized training in caring for people with Alzheimer's or dementia.

The steering committee's current focus is on membership, licensing and community outreach – and members are still choosing a name for themselves. Ideas include Homecare Cooperative or Peninsula Cooperative Care.

"It's so important for this industry ... to be simple, clear, straightforward," Waters said. "This is our community. These are our elders. We love them. We're taking care of them on our own terms."

Local caregivers wanting to learn more are invited to the next general meeting, 6-8 p.m., Monday, July 20 at Seaport Landing in Port Townsend. Contact Waters at 379-5154 or

peace@kippiwaters.com.

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