Shortage of senior caregivers forces loved ones to fend for themselves

Experts say wages should be increased for caregivers

DETROIT – As the population ages, more and more people need a level of care that loved ones can't supply without help. Families turn to caregivers to fill the gaps.

But the number of those caregivers is rapidly shrinking, leaving many vulnerable people to fend for themselves.

Helen Serrels, 80, has a limited ability to walk after a crash. She said ability to use her left hand is nonexistent.

"There's nothing I can do with these," Serrels said. "Nothing."

She lives in a senior community and is relatively independent because she has help from caregivers 10 hours a week through the Area Agency on Aging 1-B.

"I've never been ill at all, and then this happens," Serrels said. "If I didn't get help, I know I was going to get put in a nursing home right away.

Even a compassionate caregiver has bills to pay, and in many cases can earn more working behind the counter of a fast food restaurant. The shortage of certified caregivers is not a crisis on the horizon. It has arrived.

"It makes me sad because there are a lot of seniors that are put in facilities don't get that one-on-one attention that they deserve," said Melisa Adams, a certified nursing assistant.

"There's a huge shortage of people that are interested in going into the industry, unfortunately," said Shawna Graca, owner of Hearts and hands Home Care. "It's a very underpaid, underappreciated role."

It's not underappreciated by people who need the help, though.

"I've cried many, many times and many hours on this couch when I didn't know what to do," Serrels said.

The average pay for a certified caregiver is $11 per hour, so many people don't want to take on the hard work, stress and responsibility of the job.

"It makes you feel good," Adams said. "It makes my heart feel good, and I think, you know, just helping other people will make you feel good, so that's why I would hope that they would just look beyond anything else, just spending time with them."

"It gives people their independence," Graca said. "Nobody wants to go into a facility if they don't have to, so these programs allow that, but they still need assistance."

The solution to the caregiver shortage is, in part, recognizing the importance of the job.

"This can't continue to be one of the lowest wage jobs in our economy -- such important work," said Jim McGuire, of the Area Agency on Aging 1-B. "So we have to have the payers, the insurance companies, the state and Medicaid programs, allocate the dollars for this type of services so we can pay a decent living wage to the workers."

Caregivers do everything from driving to doctor appointments, cooking laundry, reminding seniors about medication and providing companionship.

Click here to learn more about the Area Agency on Aging 1-B's community living program.

Here are some additional facts from the agency:

  • While 1.4 million new jobs in direct care are expected by 2026 - 34,060 in Michigan – there will be fewer people to fill them.
  • The shortage of paid caregivers will reach crisis proportions in the coming decades, experts say. Low pay (just over $11 per hour), marginal benefits, hard work, little room for advancement, and a good economy that offers higher-paying jobs with less strain are factors affecting the shortage.
  • By 2040, there will be a national shortage of at least 350,000 paid caregivers, according to MIT economist Paul Osterman (author of “Who Will Care for Us?”) – or far more.
  • Home care workers are typically women, and 60% are people of color. With a median income of $15,000, many of them have to work a second job. One in four direct care workers live below the poverty line and more than half rely on some form of public assistance, according to PHI.

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