Does anyone care about professional caregivers?

Does anyone care about professional caregivers?
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Friday, Feb. 21st was National Caregivers Day, a day designated to honor those devoted professional caregivers who deliver care, demonstrate compassion, and provide support to patients and their families, many of whom face uncertain futures. But caregivers face uncertain futures too. 

Low wages, the projected demand, the attendant burnout, and high turnover all contribute to a precarious caregiving work environment. National Caregivers Day was initiated in 2015 by the Providers Association for Home Health & Hospice Agencies (PAHHHA), and while this is a community of professionals worthy of recognition, a “day” is not enough.

Professional caregivers constitute a large population of workers whose work is essential but also largely unacknowledged and underappreciated. The category “professional caregiver” is expansive, and not limited to nurses. The category includes patient advocates, nursing assistants, case managers, physical and occupational therapists, and social workers as well as those professionals whose primary task is the wellbeing of those in their charge. 

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As Baby Boomers continue to age and the need for federal funding increases, the United States will continually need to find, train, and keep home healthcare professionals. However, as recently reported in Vox, “[o]ne of the fastest-growing jobs in America is also one of the hardest.” 

These jobs are often minimum wage, part-time.  According to the statistics provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these home care workers’ salaries average between $13-$22K per year. These workers are unlikely to be able to participate in collective bargaining and can, at times, be subjected to racist and sexist comments and behavior.

While many professional caregiving positions require extensive training, some do not. We will need to build a more robust infrastructure in order to be more effective and to deliver the kind of care that produces healthier clients and satisfied professionals.

As a health communication researcher, I am particularly aware of how important it is for patients and their families to receive the kind of support professional caregivers provide. While administering drugs, checking vital signs, bathing and dressing patients, and helping them maintain their hygiene and mobility are recognized as instrumental types of support, the power of presence—emotional support—that professional caregivers provide is equally crucial for patients and their families.

When my stepfather entered hospice five years ago, I was astounded by the number of services furnished by the local hospice agency. In addition to assisting with his day-to-day physical needs, professional caregivers provided emotional support in the form of esteem-building. There was even a music therapist who volunteered her time to sing songs with him, songs he remembered from his youth.

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When my father-in-law came home from rehabilitation after suffering an aneurysm, “home care” included a continuation of physical therapy and respite for my mother-in-law who needed to be able to get out of the house and run errands without having to worry about her husband at home. Relief also comes in the form of a buddy provided by home health care, who played chess with my father-in-law but also offered help in other ways, performing tasks that are difficult for some senior citizens.

While under-compensated, the work of caregivers can be every bit as important to survival as the work of physicians. Science supports this claim. The buffering hypothesis shows how in stressful situations — like a health crisis — the knowledge that someone else is there to help saves us from feeling overwhelmed. Social support, defined as behaviors that communicate to an individual that she or he is valued and cared for by others, helps build self-esteem and reduces symptoms and pain. 

Social support and other forms of caregiving can be delivered virtually, but the physical presence of a caregiver implies a different kind of communication. The phone, Facetime, and Skype are godsends for maintaining a connection between patients and family members who are often flung across the nation and around the world, yet many families rely on professional caregivers not just for instrumental support but also for a caring smile and a loving touch. Indeed, being physically present for a patient intimates human connection and warmth that isn’t available in the same way through a virtual support group or over the phone. 

The problem with National Caregivers Day is that it comes and then it’s gone, but the hardworking, professional caregivers in our communities deserve more — and all year long. A thank you card, a box of Girl Scout cookies, or donation to an organization that provides professional home health care are good places to start. So, too, is letting the professional caregivers in your midst know how much you appreciate their efforts.

But ultimately, it’s lawmakers who must express more support. At a macro-level, it’s time for forward-thinking about how to significantly improve quality of life for America’s senior citizens, as the graying of America continues, with 10,000 adults turning 65 every day. That thinking must include ways to provide more robust professional caregiver support, including infrastructure in the form of education and training. Candidates and elected officials —including Donald Trump (who is currently taking us in the opposite direction) — need to address this challenge publicly.  

Most of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination — Mayor Peter Buttigieg, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) — have argued in favor of more access to home caregivers and/or higher wages for woefully underpaid positions. 

Senator Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyOvernight Health Care: Trump says US 'terminating' relationship with WHO | Cuomo: NYC on track to start reopening week of June 8 | COVID-19 workplace complaints surge 10 things to know today about coronavirus The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Twitter says Trump violates rules with 'shooting' threat MORE (D-PA) has just introduced S.3277 –Home and Community-based Services Infrastructure Improvement Act — designed to institute new programs and increased wages and benefits for home-based caregivers. If that bill is brought up for a vote, passed, and signed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE, hundreds of thousands of Americans will benefit almost immediately.

This goes well beyond partisan politics. Americans must invest in the well-being of our senior citizens as well as our dedicated professional caregivers. Ultimately, we’ll all benefit as we navigate the futures of our aging parents, as well as our own. 

Jay Baglia, Ph.D., is an associate professor of health communication at DePaul University.