Nothing cements a friendship like shared or comparable life experiences. Relating to another human being is infinitely easier when you have something in common with that other person. It takes much less work to understand and get along with such an individual.
That is why so many of today's companions and caregivers for the elderly are, surprisingly, baby boomers.
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Many of these boomers have retired or been laid off and are looking to supplement their income. Sometimes, they discover enjoyment and satisfaction taking care of an elderly relative and decide such caregiving would be a nice part-time job.
Baby boomer caregivers have found they can easily relate to those in the generation ahead of them and their clients love to socialize with a person to whom they can relate -- someone who has lived through the same big events, watched the same old television shows and cheered for the same past sports teams.
In fact, a recent Associated Press story stated that "among the overall population of direct care workers, 29 percent are projected to be 55 or older by 2018, up from 22 percent a decade earlier, according to an analysis by the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, a New York-based nonprofit advocating for workers who care for the country's elderly and disabled. In some segments of the workforce, including personal and home-care aides, those 55 and older are the largest single age demographic, PHI found.
"Around the country, senior-service agencies are seeing a burgeoning share of older workers," the AP story continued. "About one-third of Home Instead's 65,000 caregivers are over 60. Visiting Angels, another in-home care provider, says about 30 percent of its workers are over 50. And at least one network, Seniors Helping Seniors, is built entirely on the model of hiring older caregivers."
"I would really miss Bruce if he wasn't around any more," Jerry Miller of Hoffman Estates said of his caregiver, Bruce Cruz of Arlington Heights. "We have had him helping us for three years now and he just seems to anticipate my needs better than someone younger would."
"Besides that, he and I have been in the same boat and can understand each other. Both of us left corporate life before we were really ready and we know how the other one feels," Miller said.
According to Kelly Hutchison, owner of the Home Instead franchise in Elk Grove Village, home-care companies have learned there is a shorter path to a trusted relationship between client and caregiver when there is a proximity in their ages.
"It takes less time for them to get to know one another and since most baby boomers have raised families, they are better able than younger people to manage the unpredictable snowstorms and bumps of life," Hutchison said.
Cruz, 66, cares for Miller, 76, about 12 hours a week, spread out over three days, giving Miller's wife, Judy, a much-needed respite. Cruz and Miller run errands to Costco and other stores, walk at the Hoffman Estates Park District, go out to lunch, walk around the kitchen island at home, play card games and pore over the financial pages together, watching their stocks and talking about investing. Cruz also helps Judy Miller get Jerry to doctor appointments and assists Jerry with showering.
"We have adventures together," Cruz quipped. "We try to get Jerry out of the house every day."
And during Miller's recent inpatient visit to The Claremont of Hanover Park for rehabilitation after a health setback, Cruz visited on occasion to maintain their close relationship and declined to take on a new client from Home Instead, choosing to wait for Jerry to get back home.
"That is an important aspect of this story," Hutchison said. "Bruce has the flexibility to not take on another client and instead waited for Jerry to need him again. This is not a corporate job where you absolutely have to report every day."
Cruz retired at 62 after spending his whole life in the corporate world.
"They say that you should 'rewire' not 'retire,' so I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. I had spent my entire life working in a cubicle so I knew I didn't ever want to sit behind a desk again -- and I wanted to know at the end of each day that I had done something worthwhile and was appreciated," Cruz said.
And he didn't want to work full time. He just wanted to supplement his income. So, he cares for Jerry 12 hours a week and still has lots of time for volunteer work with his church, the Wheeling Township Senior Advisory Board and the Arlington Heights Senior Center.
Jerry, a former contract pricing manager for an office products company, and Cruz "hit it off" immediately, fortunately, because Jerry admitted that, at first, he didn't want an outsider helping him.
"There are still times when Jerry doesn't want help and I have to know when that is so that we aren't working upstream," Cruz said. "Jerry has a unique sense of humor and we are able to tease each other all the time. But if you didn't know us, you might think that we were mad at one another.
"Jerry has issues with mobility and I can relate. I used to run marathons but since I had my knees replaced, I cannot run. So I can relate to Jerry's frustration over not being able to be as active as he once was and the challenges he faces to adapt to what he can still do. So I urge him to push himself and I work with him on the exercises given to him by his physical therapist," Cruz said.
But, Cruz admitted, he is actually more of a help to Judy than to Jerry.
"I am there four hours a day, three days a week. Judy is there 24/7 and she needs her own space. She needs to take care of herself, too," he said.
Judy agreed. "Bruce has given me the freedom to go out and come back home refreshed."
Terrie Thompson of Rolling Meadows spent more than 35 years in sales and marketing for the telecommunications industry before she was laid off during the recession.
"I didn't want to go back to such a high-stress job with constant quotas, so I started looking for something else to do," Thompson said.
Originally trained as a teacher, she found herself gravitating toward senior care "because the needs of seniors and little kids are basically the same," she said.
She started driving seniors around for Home Instead and eventually agreed to do marketing for the firm two days a week. Before long, she found herself a full-fledged, part-time caregiver for two women and she enjoyed it so much, she knew she was hooked.
Thompson, 66, helps one woman once a week with errands, laundry, dishes, doctor appointments and even computer tasks. But mainly, she provides companionship for the woman who has absolutely no family.
She helps her other client two days a week, taking her out to lunch and shopping, working crossword puzzles with her and stimulating her with conversation and special projects like a life journal they completed last year.
"Every senior I meet I walk away knowing that I have given something to them," Thompson said. "My goal is to make their lives a bit easier and take their minds off their pains and troubles."
She said the most important thing for a caregiver to remember is to treat their clients with the utmost respect. "They are functioning human beings who didn't ask to have a complete stranger come into their home to do their laundry, read to them and even put the toothpaste on their toothbrush for them. We are guests in their homes and we need to have lots of patience with them and work to make them feel that they are still a functioning part of the world.
"I honestly get more out of helping them than I give to them," Thompson said. "I keep thinking that this could be me in a few years and how would I want them to treat me? For instance, you have to let them do things on their own if they want to, even if it takes them a long time to do it."
Hutchison of Home Instead said Cruz and Thompson are just a few examples of his franchise's cadre of able and caring baby boomer caregivers. The aging of the baby boom generation is coinciding with a changing corporate employment scene and, as a result, more older Americans are experiencing late-in-life job transitions "and we are seeing many of them seeking employment as caregivers.
"From our standpoint, these are people with lots of skills who understand how to be professional. The prospective caregivers, on the other hand, see a career with us as a chance to work in a more relaxing home setting; some may have had an experience caring for a parent or grandparent and liked it; and still others are contemplating their own futures and how they would want to be cared for by someone who truly empathetic," Hutchison said.
The fact that the job is not a full-time commitment is another plus. Depending on the client's abilities, it also isn't necessarily physically challenging, Hutchison said. But it can be.
"I can safely say that there is no longer any stigma attached to interviewing people with gray hair," he added. "They say that very soon 50 percent of this nation's gross domestic product (GDP) will be in the hands of people over the age of 50 and we as a society will need to learn to work with that reality.
"Personally, I enjoy my senior caregivers," Hutchison said. "There is an added degree of dependability and commitment that comes with the senior package and I enjoy that."