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posted: 8/9/2012 10:48 AM

Editorial: Who will care for the caregivers?

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Look no farther than your own neighborhood to find where the job growth will be. In the coming decade, the home health industry is projected to be among the fastest growing in the nation.

Yet, an Associated Press report this week pointed out that home health and personal care aides are among the country's lowest-paid workers. Nearly half live at or below the poverty line with median hourly pay at 4 cents less than that of fast-food employees, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. Many are self-employed without benefits, and their hours are not guaranteed.

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These workers are critical to the well-being of thousands of clients, but who is looking out for them? They will be needed even more as more baby boomers reach their 70s and 80s. People like Chris Hradisky of Waukegan, interviewed for the AP story, demonstrate the need. Hradisky would not be on his own without a personal assistant to help him with meals and clean his apartment. His aides, he said, are like family. "You build a bond with them."

They make dinners, ensure medicines are taken and help with personal hygiene. It's not work for the faint of heart, but one caregiver said her part-time job delivering newspapers pays better when factoring in the time and travel.

Societies often are judged on the way they attend to their most vulnerable citizens, and one that pays the lowest wages for the care of such individuals needs a priority check. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, today's 65-year-old has an average life expectancy of about 18 years. While we're seeing some older Americans able to care for themselves into their late 80s, many more will deal with illness such as diabetes and heart disease and will not be able to fully get by on their own. And as the job market improves, many of the home health workers likely will leave for higher-paying jobs.

The social structures that serve these members of our society must be fortified for the coming strain. We should ensure that the caregivers are cared for, too.

There's great value in keeping elderly or infirm residents in their homes when possible. They are more comfortable in a familiar setting. They have established local ties and relationships with neighbors, and for some their house is the only adulthood home they've known.

Those are the nonmonetary benefits. The taxpayer cost of caring for the aged and chronically ill in their own homes is far less than moving them to nursing homes.

As Illinois reduces spending, home care agencies that are reimbursed by Medicare or Medicaid will feel the squeeze. In-home care fills a vital need, but filling the jobs will be challenging. How to care for elderly adults requires thoughtful decisions by policymakers; solutions also must come through cooperation by families, businesses, philanthropists and academics. Proactive leadership is needed to stave off a potential crisis and to ensure that longevity remains a blessing to our communities, not a curse.

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