PERSPECTIVE: Shortage of caregivers is a community concern

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Will there be someone to take care of you?

Let’s face it, we are all getting older. Just look at the sea of silver-haired people at our community gatherings. However, we are not alone.

There is a wave of humanity reaching old age and impacting the world in a way that is metaphorically referred to as the “silver tsunami.” The statistics are impressive. We are creating a historically new demographic by which the old outnumber the young.

This hits very close to home in the field of long-term care, where there is an increasing need for home care and a decreasing work force of caregivers.

My career as a caregiver began in my mid-40s. My only child was in her late teens, and caregiving allowed a move away from corporate America to more heart-centered work.

Most of my associates were baby boomers closing in on middle age. Caring for our parents’ generation felt like an honorable vocation. This ancestral structure balanced the needs of the elderly with caregivers able to care for them.

As baby boomers retired, we lost this balance and are currently experiencing a caregiver shortage crisis. All home and health care providers that engage caregivers feel this pinch.

LOW WAGES

Even though it is vital to entice younger generations into this profession, caregivers are among the lowest paid domestic workers. Nationally, the median hourly wage is $10.11. Adjusted for inflation, wages have remained virtually stagnant for the past 10 years.

Poor supervision, few benefits, strenuous travel schedules, demanding workloads, inconsistent scheduling, part-time work, isolation, lack of training and support, and few advancement opportunities characterize the home care industry.

One in two caregivers leaves the job within 12 months. In fact, more workers are leaving the profession than joining it. The typical home care agency has an annual turnover rate of more than 60 percent.

Providing empowering and sustainable careers is the motivating force behind Peninsula Homecare Cooperative – a state-certified home care agency in Port Townsend owned by the caregivers.

Without corporate overhead, we are able to pay our caregivers a living wage of $15 an hour – raising the bar for our community. Members of the cooperative are caregivers and business owners with a voice and a vote in setting policy and sharing quarterly profits.

Even with this enticing cooperative model, the demand for care outpaces our available caregivers. The shortage of caregivers is a crisis that requires a community-wide solution.

TRAINING NEEDED

We need a comprehensive recruiting, training and mentorship program to bring young people into this profession. Just as the Port Townsend Maritime Discover program allows students to research information on maritime trade careers, we need a program to motivate students to consider careers in caregiving.

Recruiting caregivers is only half the solution. Training and mentorship programs are crucial for increasing the odds that young people will remain comfortable in a very personal and challenging profession. On-site mentorship with seasoned caregivers who model empathy, steadfast attentiveness, genuine concern and compassion is especially important in this impersonal age of social-media-based relationships.

The current shortage of skilled caregivers able to tend to our aging population is a problem that will only increase with time, because, let’s face it, we are all getting older. The question that requires a communal answer is this: Will there be somebody available to take care of us?

Kippi Waters, founding member and administrator of Peninsula Homecare Cooperative, has been involved in elder care for the past 15 years. She has been a resident of Port Townsend for nine years.

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