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Caring for Caregivers

Arizona’s caregivers prepare for their biggest challenge yet: the Silver Tsunami. Will they be able to handle the wave?

Jimmy Magahern | May 29, 2013, 11:21 a.m.

It’s been called the “Silver Tsunami,” that swelling wave of roughly 77 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, who began turning 65 in 2011 and whose sheer proportions threaten to impact virtually all of the health care and social services geared toward seniors in the coming years.

An estimated 10,000 people are turning 60 every day in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center; in Arizona alone, 1.48 million baby boomers are now aging into the 65-and-older population.

Perhaps nowhere is that oncoming flood of seniors more keenly felt than in the field of caregiving, where chronic shortages due to insufficient pay and a high workforce turnover have already created a need for a large base of volunteer family caregivers—people forced to alter their careers and lifestyles in order to care for aging parents or other ailing family members at home.

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David Besst is a specialist in family caregiver programs at the Arizona Division of Aging an Adult Services.

“There are over 855,000 family caregivers active in Arizona who are doing this without compensation,” says David Besst, a specialist in family caregiver programs at the Arizona Division of Aging and Adult Services, a part of DES. “And they perform duties that keep people living independently at home to the tune of about $9.4 billion a year in free services that they’re providing. That’s more than the entire state budget. If they all took a break and decided they weren’t going to do it anymore, our system would be upside down. Because four-fifths of the care being provided isn’t coming at the cost of government programs or even private pay. It’s coming at the hands of family members, friends, neighbors and loved ones who are engaging in this labor of love for no compensation.”

Paid caregivers, or direct care workers—those who make their living caring for the elderly either in-home, through staffing agencies, or in hospitals and nursing homes—are feeling the pinch, too. According to Caregiverlist, a Chicago-based senior care referral and career website that lists the Phoenix and Scottsdale area as the nation’s second top metro area (following Chicago) for senior caregiver employment, direct care workers earn an average of $10 per hour. While that’s a bit higher than the national minimum wage, direct caregivers are often denied pay for overtime due to Department of Labor regulations that exclude them from federal minimum wage and overtime protections.

As a result, overworked direct caregivers often work 60 to 80 hours a week with little compensation, and many burn out quickly. “Not everyone can do it, but we need more people to come into the industry,” says Julie Northcutt, Caregiverlist’s CEO. “We’re really concerned that we don’t have enough people as this huge population of baby boomers ages.”

Turning young people on to the career is a tough sell. The Direct Care Alliance, a national advocacy group for direct care workers in the field of long-term care, says professional caregivers earn an average of $17,000 per year—hardly the pay level that attracts high school graduates to the profession. “I think if you’re looking for fulfillment, or a sense of purpose, it can be a good direction,” Northcutt says. It’s also a relatively easy field to enter, in most cases requiring only a high school diploma or GED, a background check and, in Arizona, a minimum of 10 hours of caregiver certification training offered through most community colleges and nursing schools.

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