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Senior care facility workers are frontline heroes too

Senior care facility workers are frontline heroes too
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Today, over 2 million home care and 1 million senior living workers are protecting our vulnerable elderly, who are most at risk from the novel coronavirus. Whereas the doctors and nurses in hospitals have rightly drawn attention to their heartbreaking needs in this pandemic, public sentiment toward senior care facilities is often hurting — not helping — our frontline heroes in senior care. 

The rhetoric used by elected leaders of both parties matters almost as much as other ways to support these brave caregivers for seniors.

When media stories report about the crisis in nursing homes and the struggling staff in senior care facilities — oftentimes highlighting entire facilities overtaken by the virus — it’s alarming. Who would want to come to work in such an environment?  

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Fortunately, most frontline staff are showing up out of love for their elderly patients, facing personal danger and fear for families who are reading these news stories. Even so, how do they keep their spirits up and remain focused on protecting the country's elders? 

Unlike doctors and nurses, who have a ready and powerful audience through social media, the voices of these nursing assistants, care aides and other frontline workers are much softer. We must strain to hear them, and respond to their self-described needs around daily necessities, protection and appreciation.

Of the nearly 2,000 frontline heroes surveyed in the last two weeks by Activated Insights, the senior care group of A Great Place to Work Institute, 40 percent report experiencing extreme personal hardships due to COVID-19 and over half are requesting specific resources and support.

With unprecedented mass layoffs of their family members, many report from the frontlines of senior care facilities that they are now their household's sole breadwinner. Coupled with school closures, they feel financially overwhelmed with more mouths to feed at home, additional child care costs and the need for stockpiling supplies. 

Stress is extremely high. Many senior care providers are responding with creative solutions, from providing child care stipends to offering hazard pay. Others are sending bagged lunches and free or discounted supplies — such as toilet paper, milk, eggs and bread — home with employees to provide for their families. 

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Moreover, like doctors and nurses, the frontline staff of senior care facilities also need more personal protective equipment (PPE). However, the needs are even more basic, and, sadly, unmet. The frontline heroes in senior care facilities surveyed are requesting not only more masks and gloves, but also basics like sanitizers and cleaning supplies. 

To be clear, it is not a matter of employers withholding supplies: some CEOs have turned to Facebook and LinkedIn to ask for more suppliers and others are on WeChat ordering from Asian suppliers. Providers are trying hard to protect their frontline staff but the task is daunting, with PPE prices rising tenfold or more, testing limited no matter the price and scams occurring left and right. 

And so, we need to call on our politicians to prioritize this sector for COVID testing access, PPE and workforce support. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has shown leadership in this regard: his recently organized strike force works with nursing homes to get them the resources and support needed. We as a public must press all our politicians to designate senior care as part of the health care continuum, prioritized for support and protection. Failure to do so is morally incomprehensible.

Lastly, with the negative barbs aimed at senior care facilities, we must make sure each frontline hero feels affirmed and appreciated. Just as residents in some cities congregate outside hospitals to applaud doctors and nurses arriving for work, we should do the same for nursing homes and senior care staff. 

Maybe we should follow the lead from employers such as Avanti, which placed huge signs outside each facility to welcome their heroes for each shift, and charge nurses at Senior Star, who are giving thank you candy bars and lunches to their staff

The point, though, is that we should all do more to show (and not just talk about) appreciation for these heroes.

After all, beyond making a personal sacrifice, these vulnerable workers care for the virus's most vulnerable victims. As one caregiver in senior care shared, "It breaks my heart to know how lonely and scared some of my residents are. I long for the day when I can hug everyone one of them again." In the same way, let's give hugs and not hurt to our frontline heroes in senior care.

Mr. Robert Kramer is founder and strategic adviser to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care. He is a frequent writer and speaker on trends in seniors housing, post-acute and long-term care. 

Dr. Jacquelyn Kung is the CEO of Activated Insights, the senior care group of Great Place to Work Institute. Previously, she managed a senior care health system outside D.C. and was the U.S. long-term care expert at McKinsey & Company.