A story ran Dec.13 in this newspaper under the headline “‘Crisis mode’: As boomers age, a shortage of caregivers.” But the story is old news; this situation has been brewing for decades, until now, like the Titanic, we’ve run right into the iceberg. It’s too late to say, “What a surprise! Who knew?”
First, a recap: 10,000 baby boomers reach age 65 every day and usually want to age in place, in their own homes. For most, that’s a very good idea. Living at home is more healthful — both mentally and physically — and less expensive than an assisted-living facility. But to live at home safely, many seniors need help with the basics of daily life such as hygiene, shopping, transportation, preparing meals and so on. They need caregivers, possibly full time but often for only a few hours a week.
But despite their awesome responsibilities, home caregivers enjoy the same status (but often less pay) as burger-flippers and babysitters. According to PHI, a research organization focused on direct-care issues, home caregivers in the U.S. earn a median wage of $10.49 an hour. That’s the median, so half earn even less.
For underpaid, undertrained and underappreciated caregivers, work is a revolving door as they switch to less-demanding and better-paying jobs. Home-care agencies already operate on thin profit margins, so it’s not enough to say, “pay your workers more.” We need big, bold, systemic thinking, not finger-pointing.
Family caregivers provide vital support, but they’re not always feasible. Ideally, our national leaders should spearhead a drive to boost the training, pay, and professionalism of the caregiving workforce. Maybe add coverage for long-term care to Medicare? (It’s often a nasty surprise when seniors discover only Medicaid — or our state version, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System — pays for long-term care. Medicare doesn’t.) Maybe a federal subsidy to enhance caregiver wages? But don’t hold your breath: Our leaders seem more inclined to shred the safety net than to find effective, compassionate solutions.
It’s time to think local. Rather than wait for state or federal help that may never come, there’s much we can do right here, at the community level. Here’s a look at just a few local initiatives and resources.
Volunteer-staffed “neighbor helping neighbor” programs are a big step in the right direction. You’ll find them across the country; in Tucson the Neighbors Care Alliance is coordinated by the Pima Council on Aging. NCA programs are a way for neighborhood associations, large mobile home parks and other tightknit communities to help their most vulnerable members. PCOA supports seniors with a host of programs, and donations to the organization qualify for an Arizona charitable tax credit. Couples filing jointly can reduce their state taxes by up to $800; individuals can claim up to $400.
Tucson-based CareGiver Training Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) educational organization founded in 2001, trains caregivers and certified nursing assistants. Gifts to CGTI are tax-deductible and qualify for Arizona’s “working poor” tax credit, which allows up to $400 per couple ($200 per individual) to be claimed as a credit on your state income tax.
Finally, a long-term-care benefit is available to limited-asset veterans who served in wartime. Spouses are covered too. Contact the Veterans Administration for more information.
Building a robust home-caregiving culture isn’t impossible. Our identity as a humane society demands no less. Sure, press your elected officials for action, but local efforts can yield quicker results. We’ve already hit the iceberg; it’s time to get the lifeboats in the water.