It’s that time of year when most families get together over a huge meal, watch some football and enjoy one another. For some, though, the day is filled with worry about caring for senior parents, or filled with loneliness for those who have no family to care for them. As our population ages, more of us are facing the biggest question there is – what’s best for my mom or dad, aunt or uncle, as they age? Is home health care an option for keeping them in their homes longer?
May is an amazing woman. She has lived an exceptionally hard life. She grew up on a Texas cotton farm during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. She has no memories of childhood that don’t involve picking cotton or being abused by her father. She was a single mom in a time when women stayed at home and took care of their homes. She had to work hard to keep food on the table but she did it, raising her two sons to be university professors but never having set foot in a school herself. Despite all the hard times, May has something few in her situation have –a smile that lights up the world. She’s not bitter. She never felt life gave her a raw deal, at least until she ended up having to rely on home health care for help; she says she may as well be home alone for all the help they give her.
May belongs to a growing number of seniors who never relied on anyone to make it through. Having lived through the Depression, May learned how to be self-sufficient. She never accepted government assistance even during times of great poverty and she taught her sons to be self-reliant. But exposure to chemicals out on the farm and working in a factory led to some serious health issues, ultimately resulting in her legs being amputated. When her older son died of cancer a few years ago, her younger son, John, who lives in Washington, told May it was time to rely on someone outside the family; he hired what he thought was the best private home health company he could find.
The first impression of the company was great. The home visitation went very well. May’s caseworker met with John and May, went through the home, took copious notes. She told May and John what to expect for their big bucks every month – cooking a couple of meals every other day and setting up other meals for May’s easy access, cleaning, personal hygiene assistance, and companionship. They were allowed to interview several certified health care workers and May picked the one who seemed wonderful. She was actually looking forward to it, after months of apprehension about having a stranger taking care of her. John went back to Washington feeling confident he had taken care of his mother to the best of his ability.
Then the first Monday came. May got a call from her caseworker saying the health care worker she interviewed quit. Instead, they sent a young girl, fresh out of school, who spoke little English. May couldn’t understand a word she said and the girl definitely couldn’t understand May. May hoped the caseworker would discover the problem when she came to make sure everything was going well, but she never showed. The girl apparently was never told what to do at May’s home because she spent most of the day napping on the living room floor, fixing herself coffee, and talking on her cell phone in a language May couldn’t understand. When the girl came back on Wednesday, May called her caseworker and had to leave a message that was never returned.
The cycle was just starting for May and it’s a story that plays out every day across the country. The home health industry is just one segment of the overall healthcare system that is showing the strain of more and more increasingly ill patients without the proper staffing required to meet the need. It’s not necessarily the fault of the home health companies, although there is no excuse for not returning phone calls; turnover is very high in home healthcare because those going into the industry don’t understand they’re dealing with real humans with real, critical needs. It’s not necessarily the fault of the schools, who have been trying to get people into the home healthcare profession for years to make up for the nurse shortage that started back in the 1980s; they’re trying their best to graduate qualified home health workers as quickly as possible.
It is, however, a situation we all will face sooner or later, if not for ourselves, then for our aging parents. How do you pick a good home health agency? What alternatives are available? Does insurance cover it? Am I going to lose my house to take care of Mom if I don’t want to put her into a nursing home?
We’ll address those questions in tomorrow’s article.