Economic Development, Education, and Health Care

Experts worry as state struggles with elder care worker shortage

Low wages and a better economy combine to discourage potential aides.

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Michigan doesn’t have enough personal care workers for the growing population of elderly residents, and more aren’t coming, experts say.

The state will need 32,000 more elder care aides next year, said Clare Luz, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine who has studied the need for the past 10 years.

The study said that personal care workers help reduce falls by 76% and the number of emergency hospital visits by 56%. They can improve emotional health by 79% and overall physical health by 77%.

The shortage is at a critical level, she said.

“Most older people want to stay home, and families need help caring for them,” she said. “In-home personal care assistants are important because they can pay close attention to people’s medical needs.”

Numerous factors contribute to the shortage, Luz said. Workers consider their wages low for the amount of work they do. They’re referred to as low-skilled and they receive few benefits and little respect.

“The job is extremely trying mentally and physically,” said Erin Swadley, the owner of Marquette Home Care, which provides assisted living for the elderly. “A lot of times care workers are dealing with people who have dementia, so you’re always repeating yourself and that can be emotionally draining.

“On a physical level, people need assistance being helped in and out of their cars or out of the shower, and that can cause physical strain.”

And while workers start at about $11 an hour, they can start for more money at Meijer and Target.

“Wouldn’t you want to get $12 an hour for working there rather than helping people in and out of showers?” she said. “For this line of work, you’ve really gotta have the heart for it.”

A training program allowing workers to advance from private duty aide to caregiver aide to skilled nursing would appeal to many workers, she said.

Luz leads the IMPART Alliance, an organization of elder care workers, researchers and agencies that is trying to fill the need for more workers.

Their efforts include creating a standard training program and increasing awareness of the need. IMPART Alliance has created a traveling exhibition that displays the stories of care workers, in addition to meeting with legislators to alert them to the problem, Luz said.

There is a definite need to enhance training and certification for eldercare, said Bob Stein, the general counsel for the Michigan Assisted Living Association. “We need to professionalize the field and to do public awareness campaigns to make the job more desirable by showing how self-satisfying it can be.”

Personal care workers in the mental health field struggle with the same issue of not having and attracting enough people into the field, he said.

“The economy’s gotten better than it once was, and when that happens, people have more options of other entry-level jobs to go into, and this is not one of their choices,” he said. “In Traverse City, for instance, places like Walmart, McDonald’s or Target raise their minimum wage to $11 because you can pass the cost to the customers, but with this job, it’s difficult because you can’t just pass the cost to the families.”

The worker shortage is a problem in a lot of industries, said Luz, but this issue is different because it’s a matter of life or death for many.

“I’ve been struggling to hire more workers for a while now, and the best thing we can do is to provide a more livable wage,” Swadley said. “That’s the best way to attract more skilled workers.”

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