Hiring a Caregiver for Loved Ones

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Editor's Note

This piece contains language that some listeners may find offensive.

Tens of millions of Americans are providing home care to aging parents and other relatives. But many families are hiring caregivers to look after their loved ones. Scott Shafer of member station KQED in San Francisco spent the day with one professional caregiver and filed this report.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

American families with elderly or disabled relatives are increasingly turning to outside workers for help. In fact, the Department of Labor predicts that home health aid will be one of the fastest growing jobs in the United States over the next seven years.

Scott Shafer of member station KQED in San Francisco recently spent a day with a professional home caregiver and he has this report, and I should add it includes language and scenes that some of you may find offensive.

SCOTT SHAFER: It's 9 a.m. in Modesto, California and Laquida Smith(ph) is calling on her first client of the day.

Mr. MIKE BALDWIN: Who's that knocking on my door?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAQUIDA SMITH (Home Caregiver): Good morning.

Mr. BALDWIN: Good morning.

SHAFER: A cheery Mike Baldwin answers the door. His partner is Pat Cronan(ph), a woman in her 50's suffering from lupus, an immune system disorder that leaves her with extreme fatigue and swollen joints. As we walk in to the bedroom, Pat Cronan is lying in bed under the covers.

Ms. SMITH: Hi. How are you feeling today?

Ms. PAT CRONAN (Smith's Client): I'm feeling good.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah. You want to sleep a little bit?

Ms. CRONAN: Probably.

SCHAFER: Cronan stays in bed while smith checks on the laundry and straightens up a bit. Dressed in blue scrubs and white Adidas sneakers, she stands over the kitchen sink and pours Pine-Sol disinfectant into the running water. As she wipes down the kitchen counters, I ask her what makes for a tough client?

Ms. SMITH: Their attitude. Some can't deal with, you know, some of the disabilities they have and they take it out usually on us.

SHAFER: Can you be more specific? Like, what do they do? What do they say?

Ms. SMITH: I didn't ask for no nigger to work here with me, you know? And what are you doing here, or, you know, they'll just see me sometimes and go, well, you're black. And I'll go, well, yeah. You know?

SHAFER: Smith works for Arcadia Health Care, a national company based in Michigan. She earns between $12 and $9 an hour depending on the difficulty of the client. Although she can purchase health benefits from the company, she has no insurance coverage.

By late morning, this shift ends and 90 minutes later, she's back on the job with her afternoon client.

Victor and Jerry Vigil(ph), two brothers in their mid-40's, both of them in wheelchairs live here with their elderly parents. They suffer from an inherited disease that affects their spine and muscles and their ability to speak.

Mr. VICTOR VIGIL (Smith's Client): (Unintelligible).

Ms. SMITH: Oh, okay. Okay, let's take your t-shirt off first.

SHAFER: In the bathroom, Laquita Smith is getting ready to bathe Victor. He sits in an old wheelchair; its left armrest is wrapped in tape to prevent the foam padding from spilling out. His body is emaciated, his legs are just bones wrapped in flesh.

Mr. V. VIGIL: (Unintelligible).

SHAFER: Smith removes the T-shirt and diaper he's wearing, and helps into the bathtub.

Ms. SMITH: You're going to have to lift yourself. Are you ready?

(Soundbite of water splashing)

SHAFER: She leans over and gently scrubs her client's body with a small white washcloth. The Vigils have been clients of hers for just three weeks. But almost from day one, they have the most intimate interactions you can imagine.

Ms. SMITH: They have exactly 18 visits a month. So we kind of have to make do with that.

Okay, turn over. We're going to get your hair done.

SHAFER: Victor's bath is done. Smith dries him off and lifts him back into the wheelchair for the short ride to his bedroom. His room is dark and kind of messy. Smith sprays air freshener to mask the faint smell of urine.

As she's rubbing lotion on his body, victor's mom mother, Beatrice, enters the room.

Ms. BEATRICE VIGIL: Yeah, it's hot in here.

SHAFER: She is a tiny Latino woman standing less than five feet tall. I asked her about having two disabled sons at home and what it means to have someone like Laquita come in to help.

Ms. VIGIL: Oh, that means the world to me. Because if I didn't have her, all of what she does I would have to do, and I can't. I can't do it.

SHAFER: Government programs like Medicare and Medicaid cover some homecare services, but not many, and only for the short term.

As smith continues dressing Victor, she jokes around with him. But her mood is much more serious than it was earlier in the day. It maybe hard to imagine doing this kind of work for a living. Smith says, it gives her a different perspective on her own life.

Ms. SMITH: You think you got it bad, there's always somebody that has it a little bit worse than you do, so you just have to pray for them and yourself.

Are you ready?

Mr. V. VIGIL: (Unintelligible).

Ms. SMITH: One, two...

SHAFER: Laquita Smith(ph) hopes to one day open her own homecare agency, either for seniors or developmentally disabled adults.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

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