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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.

“The one main requirement is that you have to be a caring individual,” Northcutt says.

That said, the demands on the caregiver, especially in the boom years coming up, can be taxing. “If you look at the most searched phrases on Google,” says Northcutt, “the words ‘caregiver stress’ are frequently near the top of the list.” (Google Trends also forecasts that the term “caregiver burnout” will rise in popularity over the next year.) “It’s something we’re going to have to acknowledge and address.”

Even in the area of family caregiving, where the volunteer is caring for an older relative out of familial obligation rather than in pursuit of a paycheck, the motivation to keep “doing the right thing,” as Besst puts it, can eventually wane.

“Sometimes there are five adult children in a family and one will step up to care for the parents while maybe a brother or sister thinks that sibling is the wrong one for the job,” he says. “Other times one person may provide care for a time and then feel it’s another sibling’s turn. So there are all kinds of family dynamics that can come into play.”

For the family member who does step up, there’s usually a financial toll, too. According to a 2011 MetLife study on caregiving costs, the average person aged 50 or older who quits their job to be a full-time caregiver will forego over $300,000 worth of wages, Social Security and pension benefits. The 17 percent of the American workforce that tries to take on a caregiver role while remaining at their job rack up a combined total of over 126 million missed workdays each year, often without available paid family leave.

“When you ask people why they become family caregivers, many times it’s for a lack of choices,” says Besst, who himself quit a career in sales and marketing to care for his mother after she began showing signs of dementia. “It’s a journey that usually starts when a family member needs care. But if you find it rewarding, it can continue with others even after they’re gone.”

Changing clientele

The first time since her childhood that Kathleena Smith heard the “n-word” was when she began working as a senior caregiver in Arizona.

“I moved from California back in the 90’s, and I hadn’t heard that word spoken since I was a very little child,” says Smith, now in her 60’s and still living in Tucson. “Working for elderly people, I’d hear them say, ‘Did you see that’ so-and-so, and I was appalled! But I guess that was the age.”

Now, Smith—“Sunny” to friends—works as a team leader in the Tucson-based Direct Care Worker Association, a nonprofit cooperative of in-home caregivers founded by Judy Clinco, president of Catalina In-Home Services and a nationally-recognized advocate for caregiver’s rights. And she cautions those entering the field—predominately women, often African-American, Hispanic and immigrants—to be prepared for anything.

“The last job I booked, we had a Filipino gal and two ladies from Africa,” says Smith, who acknowledges caregiving as one of the few truly equal opportunity careers in America. “And I always have to warn people upfront about that. When they come to work, I’ll let them know that some of the people they’re caring for may say a few racially insensitive things. It’s just probably gonna happen. And if you can’t handle it, you’ll need to move on.”

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