They‘re calling it the Silver Tsunami. Across the country, as Baby Boomers reach the age where many need caregiving, they’re finding a shortage of people to help them.
“For the first time in recorded human history, the old outnumber the young,” said Kippi Waters, co-founder of the Peninsula Homecare Cooperative, a worker-owned homecare agency, at a community summit she organized to raise awareness of the issue in May.
Baby Boomers had fewer children than their parents, and Generation X fewer still. According to statistics given by the Cooperative, the ratio of people over 80 to people between 45-64, or the ideal age of being a caregiver according to Waters, is growing increasingly problematic.
In Jefferson County, which has the oldest demographic in Washington and is ranked ninth in the country, this issue is especially prevalent.
Waters said that this issue is currently a “huge topic of discussion” in the caregiving industry nationwide.
“It’s not that we’re starting to feel the crunch,” said Waters in a later interview. “We have been feeling it. It feels like we just squeak by. We just barely cover the clients that need our help. Most of our caregivers work overtime in order to fulfill the needs of our clients. And there are clients that we can’t take care of, because we just don’t have the staff.”
The voices of caregivers
In a phone interview after the conference, home care aide Cynthia Tafoya said the job requires strength and compassion. “There’s not enough workers,” she said. “And the workers that we do have are not as experienced as we need them to be.” She added that she has had to pick up many shifts, especially due to high turnover rates caused by low wages for the difficult work.
Lisa D’Andrea, a caregiver for people with developmental disabilities, echoed Tafoya. “There’s not enough of us, and it’s getting worse and worse,” she said in an interview. “Less people are applying. In Port Townsend, nobody is applying to be a caregiver. Nobody wants to be doing that kind of work for that little of pay.”
She said that a lack of coworkers has greatly increased the burden placed on her and her coworkers.
“We sometimes have to care for more than one person at a time, where their health issues are so severe that they really should have one-on-one care. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to say ‘I can’t work in these conditions.’”
Tafoya said that the solution to this issue lies in “making it enticing for people to come into this field, and the wages need to be competitive for that to happen.”
D’Andrea said that her coworkers strongly believe in a $15 minimum wage, especially for a career as challenging as caregiving.
“This work is so much harder than people realize, that it’s not worth doing unless we were to get more money,” she said, “and so some people walk out and find a different career or move away.”
Conference gathers diverse stakeholders
The May 22 summit at the Port Townsend Community Center was attended by current and former caregivers and hospice nurses, representatives from agencies such as the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), the Port Townsend City Council, and the Olympic Area Agency on Aging, or O3A, as well as interested community members. Waters was pleasantly surprised by the turnout, and was “impressed at the representation of the pertinent agencies.”
The caregivers in the group stressed the importance of caregiving, especially for those who need care but don’t wish to live in a long-term care facility and therefore require homecare. They explained the difficulties of juggling so many patients and how it can prevent them from giving adequate care to any one individual.
Some community members expressed concern over the caregiver shortage in relation to the care they might need in the future.
The participants spent most of the summit in two groups addressing the sources of the problem and brainstorming solutions.
One problem was what many agreed is a lack of awareness of the profession, and perhaps a stigma against it in favor of becoming a doctor or nurse. The caregivers in attendance stressed the difficulty of the job, its importance in the healthcare field and the rewarding nature of the profession.
Waters said that a primary goal of people in the industry should be “inspiring a new generation of caregivers to pick up this profession, which is probably going to take rebranding caregiving as a viable career choice.” She explained that a key to accomplishing this is to introduce high school students to the field, as many are unaware of it, including those looking into the healthcare field.
Marketing elder care to Generation Next
Judy Alexander, who is part of the board for Local 20/20, an all-volunteer organization that is “dedicated to promoting self-reliance, sustainability, and resiliency at a community level,” told members of her group that she has heard from Local 20/20 meetings with community members that there is a stigma among Port Townsend graduates about staying in Port Townsend.
“There’s an undercurrent attitude that is somehow conveyed to students that if you stay in PT there’s something to be ashamed of,” she said. Local 20/20 is holding meetings with school administrators to create a relationship with the high school. They have been promised a stall at the annual Port Townsend High School jobs fair, are forming job shadowing opportunities for students, and are exploring having an office within the school from which they can guide students on career paths and show them the local options they have.
“We need to be telling our youth that we value them,” she said in a phone interview, adding that she encourages youths to move away for college or work, but that “it would be nice to let them know that there’s a way for them to come back.”
Education and training in caregiving was identified as another major source of the issue. Numerous group members brought up what they felt was a lack of certification opportunities for Certified Nursing Assistants, or CNAs, in Port Townsend, with a common suggestion that CNA classes should be offered at the Port Townsend branch of Peninsula College. Waters clarified that CNA training programs exist online through local organizations, but that a physical center for training would make becoming a caregiver much more accessible.
Adora Brouillard, from the state office of DSHS in Lacey told her group that this issue is affecting all of Washington, and that her department had created a “Highschool Homecare Aid Course” to address the issues of awareness and training by offering high school students the option of graduating high school as a certified homecare aid. However, only one school in Eastern Washington has taken up the program, due to the requirements for hosting, such as having a full lab and specialized instructor, which are hard to meet.
The group led by Waters also identified a need for education for community caregivers, which are family and friends who step up to care for their friends or loved ones in old age.
“People who can’t afford to hire caregivers, that don’t want to go into a skilled nursing facility, they gather their friends. But these friends don’t know what to do.”
Although the Cooperative currently does private-pay homecare for seniors primarily, Waters hopes to extend their services to include basic training for community caregivers.
The impact of expensive housing
Expensive local housing also increases the difficulty of retaining caregivers and potential caregivers.
The groups put together all of the organizations that can help solve the crisis, many of whom had representatives at the meeting. The participants agreed that cooperation among these organizations, the city of Port Townsend and social services such as DSHS is key in reaching this goal. In order for wages to be raised and prices of caregiving to decrease to make it more accessible, it was agreed that sources of increased funding should be explored by all parties.
The summit exceeded Water’s expectations. “What I took away from the summit is that there already is an awareness in our community of this problem. A lot of people showed up ready to define solutions. We’ll just move forward together, gather our resources, and make those solutions happen.”
“There seems to already be organizations available and ready to help friends and family,” she continued. “It’s going to be a matter of coalescing our effort and getting the word out, having a hub of resources so people can know what’s available to help, and possibly additional training programs.”
Waters is planning more public meetings to raise greater awareness of the crisis. Alexander agrees with the importance of further educating the community. “This crisis is coming,” she said. “It’s kind of here, but it’s going to get worse.”