One evening not long ago, I was with my 95-year-old father-in-law in his apartment at an assisted living facility here in Tucson. He was on hospice care and quite near the end of his life. I had stopped by to check on him.
As I sat at his bedside, the caregivers for the facility came in to get him ready for the night. I watched with great appreciation as two wonderful caregivers gently and capably assisted him, and was moved by the caring way they met his needs. Once he was settled in, I said good night, my heart filled with gratitude that I was able to leave him in such kind hands. My father-in-law was one of an estimated 12 million Americans assisted by nearly 4.5 million direct-care workers who support older adults and people with disabilities nationwide. Home-care workers, certified nursing assistants, and certified caregivers help with everything from bathing and housekeeping to IV medications.
Direct-care workers were already heroes in my book, but they are now taking on the challenging task of caring for coronavirus patients. These often-unseen health workers are on the frontlines of the pandemic, caring for people as they return home from the hospital or helping them recover at home without hospitalization.
Direct-care workers are facing the same challenges that have been widely reported for the health-care industry with obtaining adequate personal protective equipment — while earning little more than minimum wage and often working without the safety net of benefits.
Communities across the country, including ours, were experiencing a shortage of direct-care workers even before the current public health crisis. According to PHI, the nation’s leading authority on the direct-care workforce, from 2018 to 2028 nationally we will need to fill 8.2 million job openings in direct care, including tens of thousands in Arizona.
COVID-19 is compounding an already urgent situation and bringing to the foreground both the value of direct-care workers and the challenges faced by the direct care industry. The Pima Council on Aging is committed to providing local leadership to address these issues. We both contract with local home-care agencies to provide in-home care and employ nearly 100 direct-care workers through PimaCare at Home, a subsidiary of PCOA.
Last week, PCOA greatly expanded our impact in this area by bringing the CareGiver Training Institute (CGTI) into its family of nonprofit companies as a subsidiary organization. CGTI provided excellent training programs in Tucson for nearly 20 years, and has trained thousands of certified nursing assistants, certified caregivers and assisted living managers.
In these uncertain times, it is essential to maintain and expand the workforce of excellent direct care workers in our community to meet the challenges of today’s crisis, and prepare for the future.
I will never forget the two caregivers who were so wonderful with my father-in-law that night. The following morning, I went to visit and was stopped by a staff member as I headed down the hall. She apologized to be the one to tell me that he had died just a little while earlier, and the caregivers were preparing his body for the family to come for the last time.
As I rushed home to tell my wife her father had died, I was profoundly grateful to his caregivers for filling his last hours with dignity, compassion and comfort. And I continue to be so to this day. Direct-care workers are critical members of our frontline health care defense, and they are heroes deserving of our respect, support and gratitude.
W. Mark Clark is president & CEO of the Pima Council on Aging, the designated Area Agency on Aging for Pima County.
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