Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By Erin Hayes
AUBURN — When I stop to give thanks this holiday season, the first people who come to mind are those for whom I give thanks every day: direct care workers.
Erin Hayes is a member of the board of the Direct Care Alliance and a family caregiver for her husband, Ben, who became a quadriplegic in 2007. She lives in Auburn with her husband and their daughter.
Direct care workers are the home care and home health aides, personal care attendants, certified nursing assistants and other front-line workers who provide hands-on care for people who need assistance with basic daily activities, whether at home or in a nursing home, assisted living facility or other residential facility. For family caregivers like me, they are a saving grace. Without the direct care workers who assist my husband, he and I could not live the life we wanted.
My husband, Ben, is a C4/C5 quadriplegic. This means he is unable to care for himself. He cannot feed himself. He cannot dress himself. He cannot get out of bed himself. However, he can and does work – full time. In order to go to work, he needs help with all of the activities of daily living that most take for granted.
So who helps him? For a very long time, I did. But in doing that, I forgot my role in our relationship, as did my husband. We were no longer husband and wife; we were caregiver and patient. The stress was too much, the burden too heavy. We almost imploded as a couple.
Then we hired our first direct care worker, and our life changed. We now have someone come to our house seven days a week. She’s here only for an hour a day, but that one hour has made all the difference.
Our current direct care worker is amazing. She is compassionate, diligent and professional. She knows her job is to care for my husband, but she also does what she can to help me. She is respectful when she comes into our home and has never, ever made us feel guilty for hiring her.
She helps Ben bathe, dress and get out of bed. She helps him shave, eat breakfast and drink his coffee. She performs his activities of daily living so he can get ready for work. She is his arms and legs. She does all the work for him since he cannot.
She is his lifesaver. She is my lifesaver.
She has given Ben the independence that he deserves – independence from me. Imagine your wife or even your mom caring for you every single day. How would that make you feel? Direct care workers help alleviate that burden, not just on family members but also on those who need the care.
But direct care workers need help, too. Low government reimbursement rates, mostly through Medicaid and Medicare, for the services they provide mean low wages for these workers, who average around $10 an hour.
Add to that inadequate training and little respect and support, and it is not surprising that it can be almost impossible to retain direct care workers. My husband and I have experienced the revolving door firsthand, losing many incredible workers to higher-paying jobs in other fields.
I joined the board of the Direct Care Alliance to help slow down that revolving door. The Direct Care Alliance empowers direct care workers so they can advocate for their profession.
In September, we helped win a major victory for workers when the U.S. Department of Labor ruled that most home care workers would soon be covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. This change will guarantee the workers minimum wage and overtime pay and other basic labor protections.
We are helping direct care workers obtain low-cost health insurance, and advocating for paid sick days and paid family and medical leave for all low-wage workers. It’s all part of our effort to strengthen, stabilize and support this crucial profession, which is the fastest-growing in the nation.
Meanwhile, on behalf of all consumers and family members, I would like to say “thank you” to all direct care workers.
Thank you for getting up every day to allow Ben, and millions like him, to get to their jobs and other important activities.
Thank you for allowing them the ability to live their lives with dignity, for picking a profession that is desperately needed and for sticking with it even when it is an uphill battle.
As for our direct care worker, I cannot thank you enough. But, thankfully, I think you know that.
— Special to the Press Herald