Emily Reardon lives in a nursing home. While I was visiting her last week, I had the chance to watch the aide who washed and dressed her, fixed her hair, remade the bed and made her feel comfortable. She and Emily kidded through it all as she discussed her children and the work she does as a single parent. Then she had to run because "they were short-handed again."
Emily commented to me that "she's my friend; she works so hard and sometimes I feel lonely when I don't get to see her _ that's when she has to work in another area. She has a lot of other people she has to take care of."
Women have been and still are the traditional caregivers in our society. We take care of our children, our aging parents, our spouse and each other as we become older.
Daughters, daughters-in-law and wives provide the majority of care for older family members and the paid caregivers, the aides _ who are 95 percent women and a large portion in midlife or older _ take care of us.
As we grow older and need help in the activities of daily living and these needs surpass our family members' ability to care for us, or if we live alone, we rely on these paid caregivers in our homes or in nursing homes.
Unfortunately, paid caregivers' employment conditions are not always favorable. We often pay them less than we pay those who groom our lawns, clean our clothes or tend to our cars.
Researchers in the field of chronic care are identifying a direct correlation between the way we "care about" paid caregivers as employees and the quality of care we receive as older individuals. Besides low pay, many have access to medical insurance only through Medicaid _ the same program that pays the nursing home and home care bills of their clients.
Paid care aides are the backbone of nursing homes, and our home care system provides up to 90 percent of all the direct care given to patients. As managed care continues to move people out of hospitals earlier and into nursing homes or to home and community-based care, more of us will be relying on them.
Encouraging sympathetic and supportive care is essential. Perhaps more emphasis on the emotional side of care, combined with a system of rewards, could help combat discouraging pressures many aides face.
We should encourage and praise compassionate care and work with aides in devising ways to deal with difficult patients. Rewards send a clear message as to what is important in care. Stress can be reduced by opening up channels of communication where frustrations could be expressed. Involvement in the care-planning process can help with feelings of being devalued or isolation on the job. Consultation with aides could be encouraged where suggestions would be encouraged. They should be actively included in family care conferences.
If we want paid caregivers to give sympathetic and supportive care, we as family, professionals and administrators must care about them, too.
This is not just an issue for those who care about a person's right to be properly valued for her labor, but it is a concern to each and every one of us who cares about the quality of care received by those we love.
A free public forum, "Long-Term Care: Quality Care & Paid Caregivers," will take place April 19 at the St. Petersburg Public Library, 3745 Ninth Ave. N, from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Remember: Caregivers make the present moment count!
_ Ethel Sharp is executive director of Aging Matters, Inc., a non-profit network for family caregivers and elder care.