Getting Answers: struggles finding at-home care workers and care

“This is the beginning of a crisis that we have known is coming,” said Danielle Lord, chief operating officer at O’Connell Care at Home.
Published: May. 22, 2023 at 9:39 AM EDT
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SOUTH HADLEY, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - As nursing homes are closing their doors, many people are opening up their homes to receive care at their houses, but as the number of elders seeking at-home care increases, agencies are facing an even larger issue trying to keep up with the staffing demand.

“This is the beginning of a crisis that we have known is coming,” said Danielle Lord, chief operating officer at O’Connell Care at Home.

Four nursing homes in western Massachusetts were forced to close their doors at the beginning of this year, which left hundreds in search of a new place to stay. Those four homes are all owned by Northeast Healthcare Group and include the Chapin Center in Springfield, Governor’s Center in Westfield, and Willimansett Centers East and West in Chicopee. However, finding care for those displaced may be more difficult than expected, especially if you are turning to at-home care.

“People are waiting about six months for care, longer sometimes if they have specific hours or they have other barriers to getting care,” Lord added.

Lord told Western Mass News even with the 200 caregivers at any given moment, they can’t keep up with the increasing demand.

“There are so many baby boomers that are really going to need care and surveys have shown they largely want to stay home and keep their independence in their home,” Lord explained.

One of those baby boomers is Margo Roberts’ father-in-law, who has been receiving care at home for Parkinson’s disease over the past two years.

“That has definitely been his wish and he has made that abundantly clear to us, but I think that having familiar surroundings affords a level of comfort and stability, particularly as someone who struggles with dementia, that’s particularly necessary, so we’re just so grateful,” Roberts said.

Roberts’ father-in-law currently receives 100 hours of at-home care, with more than 10 different caretakers visiting his home every week, but for the Roberts family, it’s not always about who is coming in to help, but if someone can.

“He does qualify to get 24/7 care, but with the staffing shortages, that has not been possible,” Roberts noted. It’s an issue Lord said elders across western Massachusetts are facing, which is leaving families to fill in the gaps when care isn’t available.

“There hadn’t been a waitlist really ever since, until COVID…In the rural area areas like the Franklin County area, the hill towns, and I’d say Northampton, Amherst, big wait list there…Home care work is never guaranteed, so that’s the big problem with some of, why people aren’t staying in this industry,” Lord added.

Lord also said the low wages and varying hours deter people from becoming caretakers. It’s something State Senator John Velis told Western Mass News needs to be addressed in order to see change.

“A lot of people, unless they have a personal passion for this, the wages are such where there is not really an enticement to go into them, so I think, as a state, it is getting creative and doing things like family members, if they possess the requisite skills to allow them to get paid for it,” Velis said.

Velis is referring to ‘An Act to Establish the Family Caregiving Tax Credit,’ which would provide up to a $1,500 refundable tax credit to qualifying family members who care for loved ones at home, but he acknowledged this will only help minimize the staffing shortages, not solve them, as more people turn to at home care.

“We now have data that says that people want to grow old in place…period, end of story. They don’t want to go to other places, so we need to do better…We can’t have that paradigm shift if there is not enough people to fill these jobs to do that and a big part of that is wages, benefits, but really just getting interested in these fields and once they’re in the fields, keeping them in the fields,” Velis noted.

While there have been challenges with at-home care, Roberts said her family is just grateful to be able to see her father-in-law’s wish to stay at home fulfilled.

“The aids really, I feel, are the unsung heroes here because they are willing to do difficult work in less than ideal circumstances so it’s been a gift and an answer to our prayers as a family that we have that,” Roberts said.