Monday, November 22, 1999

Elder care falling short

Workers in short supply

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mary Davis, 90, gets an assist from Geneva Chancellor as they go for a short walk in Westwood.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
| ZOOM |
        Organizations scrambling for people to care for the elderly covet workers like Virginia Hardin.

        The Golf Manor woman spends four hours each weekday with Arthur Menges at his Monfort Heights home.

        She helps the 81-year-old bathe. She exercises his legs, which have poor circulation because of diabetes. She helps test his blood sugar, she plays checkers and she reads Scripture with him.

        To Ms. Hardin, 55, caring for older people is “my ministry.” That's fortunate, be cause the pay is low and the work can be emotionally and physically draining.

        Home-care agencies and nursing homes are looking for more like Ms. Hardin to ease what many call a staffing crisis. Among the most in-demand are workers to help with daily activities such as bathing, feeding and housekeeping.

        The Council on Aging of Southwest Ohio — which covers Hamilton, Butler, Clermont, Clinton and Warren counties — has more than 370 on a waiting list for home care in Butler and Hamilton counties. Northern Kentucky Long Term Care Unit's waiting list has about 30.

        Nationally, the Census Bureau's 1998-99 Occupational Outlook handbook lists personal and home-care aides as one of the fastest-growing occupations after computer technicians. And a recent survey by the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging said staff retention and recruitment was a No.1 priority for members.

        Adding pressure is low unemployment and a rapidly growing population of older, frailer seniors. Coincidentally, the number of women age 25-44 who traditionally have taken care jobs is shrinking.

        To attract new workers, care providers and legislators are considering better pay and benefits, while creating training programs targeted at retired people and students.

        Most of all, agencies are

        stressing the satisfaction gained through helping others.

        “It can be a career, and it's not just an entry-level job that people take when they can't find something else,” said Pam Metz, a former caregiver who worked her way up to nursing and now is developing a recruitment and training program for the Council on Aging. “It takes commitment and compassion, and the rewards can be amazing.”

        Dorothy Daniels waited nearly three weeks for someone to help her with household chores and to drive her to doctor appointments. Emphysema makes it hard for the 68-year-old Avondale resident to make her bed, drive and climb stairs.

        Ms. Daniels called the Council on Aging late last month and went on the waiting list.

        “I felt like these services were there for older people; I should be able to get on,” she said. “(My case manager) said it might take a little while longer because there was a shortage.”

        Said Don Glass, whose Northern Kentucky Long Term Care Unit contracts with the Northern Kentucky Area Development District to connect seniors with home care: “In recent months, we've had clients go without services. Instead of three baths a week, they may get two. They've been assessed, they're eligible, but maybe they're getting just one service they need, like a meal.”

        Steven Boymel, administrator of Brookwood Retirement community in Sycamore Township, said he's tried nearly everything to attract workers.

        “We place a lot of ads, we've raised benefits, we've raised salaries, we've done everything we can to be viewed as an excellent place to work, and even with that there are a small number of positions that don't get filled,” he said.

        “When that happens, we call an agency, and that, to me, is regrettable because that person doesn't know the resident. They're being cared for, yes, but not by someone who sees them on a daily basis and knows their nuances.”

        With salaries ranging from $5.15 minimum wage to $11 an hour, workers caring for the elderly are among the lowest paid in the country, says a study by the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University.

        Caregivers who don't work in nursing homes often are part-time without benefits.

        Today, with Greater Cincinnati's unemployment rate hovering around 3.5 percent, people can afford to be picky in their choice of jobs and to leave workplaces they don't like.

        “I saw a fast-food sign that said, "Now hiring, $9 an hour,'” said Mary Jane Stumpf, whose M.J. Nursing in Walnut Hills is contracted by the Council on Aging for home services. “If you can work at a restaurant and not have to deal with cleaning people up or dealing with people dying and make the same amount of money, it's a lot easier.”

        Nancy Gillespie has experienced frustration caused by high turnover at care agencies. Her mother, Mary Davis of Westwood, receives service through Life Care At Home, a private agency in White Oak that employs Virginia Hardin.

        “I'll bet we've gone through four or five people, and I know one couldn't stay because she needed a full-time job with benefits,” Ms. Gillespie said.

        Today, Mrs. Davis, 91, has steady help in Geneva Chancellor of Westwood and Louise Morris of Mount Healthy. The women take turns providing housekeeping, companionship and help with exercise.

        “They've become part of the family, there's no doubt,” Ms. Gillespie said. “It's helped just settling things down to know (mom) is safe and well taken care of.”

        Recruiting and retaining care workers is crucial because the need for them will only grow.

        Americans 85 and older are among the the fastest-growing age group. By 2030, people 65 and older could represent 20 percent of the population.

        “As the baby boomers age, we're going to see a major influx of people who are going to try to access the long-term care system, and we're going to need a lot more people to provide that care,” said Steve Mould of the Ohio Health Care Association, a trade organization representing nursing and assisted living facilities. “It takes special people to provide that care. You can't just pull them off the street.”

        Attempts are being made to address low wages and benefits.

        The Council on Aging got Hamilton and Butler counties to allocate more of their senior levies to hourly pay last year.

        Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asked the General Accounting Office this month to examine how the nursing home industry spends the $39 billion it gets from the federal government.

        Still, many say it isn't realistic to expect wages to climb dramatically, especially with recent cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and other funding for senior services.

        To compensate, providers are stressing training and intangible benefits in an attempt to create the image of a career from what the public often sees as a dead-end job.

        The Council on Aging plans to start its training program in February with classes in housekeeping and more-involved caregiving. The goal is to create a one stop shop for workers who could serve the various agencies with which the council contracts.

        Patti Newcomb, director of Life Care at Home, initiated a training program for her agency last month. It's been successful, she said, with two classes turning out nine workers the agency can call upon for help.

        Many nursing homes are helping caregivers climb a career ladder. Over the past 10 years, the Ohio Health Care Association has given 250 scholarships to workers training for nursing, therapy, and other jobs.

        Across the board, providers are looking at broadening the pool of prospective employees from the traditional one of unmarried, middle-age women with high school educations or less.

        Providers are seeking empty-nesters, stay-at-home moms who could provide care while kids are at school, and high-schoolers looking at starting a career over going straight to college.

        Most of all, they seek people like Virginia Hardin — people who work with the elderly because they love it, not just because they have to, and people who prefer the satisfaction of helping others to a big paycheck.

        “You have to be people-oriented, and you have to have a compassionate heart — this job isn't for everyone,” Ms. Hardin said. “It's just a call from God.”


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