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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.

Fortunately, Smith says, her last client was racially broad-minded—a bit more on the leading edge of the baby boomer generation, who are now just beginning to enter the caregiver-needing stage and are, naturally, igniting a boom in the senior caregiver field to deal with their sheer numbers.

Having to deal a bit less with the segregationist social mores of the Greatest Generation is one unspoken benefit of entering the caregiver field today. But serving any generation with their filters off, unhinged by Alzheimer’s or just advancing age to blurt out whatever is on their minds—political correctness be damned—can be difficult to deal with. At times, says Smith, who’s pushing to change the Fair Labor Standards Act to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers, it can even pose a safety hazard.

“They don’t know it, but they can be screaming at you and sometimes even get violent,” says Smith, who, like most in the senior caregiver field, is herself an empty-nester who admits part of her drive comes from facing her own mortality and wanting to make caregiving better for her own generation.

But that generation—unfiltered, and free to unleash decades of PC-repressed emotions on whoever’s changing the bedpan—may pose its own challenge to tomorrow’s caregivers. Imagine providing personal assistance to a nation of 90-year-old George Carlins, full of the righteous rage and biting sarcasm of their ’60s youth, but now also prone to repeating the same material day after day.

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“We’re really concerned we don’t have enough (caregivers) as this huge population of baby boomers ages,” says Julie Northcutt, CEO of Caregiverlist.

“You have to be able to meet them where they are,” says Northcutt. She stresses that this ability will become especially crucial with the projected increase in seniors with Alzheimer’s disease, which, according to a recent government-funded report, will almost triple by 2050.

“With Alzheimer’s, a lot of times the patient remains in pretty good physical shape, but they need what’s called companion care, where you’re just there to engage with the patient and keep their day on track,” she says. “And that’s a huge growing portion of the caregiving marketplace today.”

Another interesting piece of the caregiving field is recent rise of the compassion club. It’s probably no coincidence that the Woodstock generation’s long-fruitless rallying to legalize pot is finally becoming a reality just as its oldest members are finding a legitimate need for the herb to treat their Alzheimer’s and glaucoma. Arizona’s Proposition 203, approved by voters in 2010, not only legalized medical marijuana use for people in the state with certain debilitating conditions, it also allowed them to designate someone as a “caregiver” to grow or otherwise obtain marijuana for them if a dispensary is not within 25 miles of their home. The provision has sparked an unknown number of so-called “compassion clubs” throughout the state, expanding the role of senior caregiver to include medical marijuana cardholders, delivering the occasional bag of weed to their patients.

For the professional direct care worker like Smith, though, such dilution of the term only serves to further delay the respect she feels has been too long in coming for her profession.

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