The holiday season is upon us and the winter weather has moved in across New England. Under normal circumstances, we would all be planning large family gatherings, office parties, and getaway trips. This year, however, is like no other in modern history. We know what we must do for ourselves and our communities to slow the spread of the coronavirus and to help protect our most vulnerable loved ones. At the same time, we must not forget that we are also responsible for caring for our caregivers.
In eldercare communities that provide every level of care across New England and indeed the entire country, our caregivers have faced the most dangerous threat ever to their lives, their livelihoods — and importantly — the people in their care. These professionals work long hours and weeks under tremendous stress, facing down a dangerous illness, and often for very modest pay. The physical toll is obvious, but perhaps it can be easy to underestimate the emotional torment that comes with watching a resident — a friend, mother or father, grandmother or grandfather, a mentor — become ill and die.
With the arrival of the vaccine, it can be tempting to let our guard down and forget about the needs of our long-term care communities, their staff, and residents. Recently, Gov. Sununu reactivated New Hampshire’s Long-Term Care Stabilization Program, which will offer stipends to frontline health-care workers at Medicaid facilities until the end of December. This is a weekly $300 stipend for full-time workers, and $150 for part-time workers. We applaud this modest but necessary action, but are mindful that so much more is needed to ensure our caregivers are protected and compensated adequately for years to come.
It was recently reported that New Hampshire lost 709 licensed nursing assistants over a recent 12-month period. This trend is not sustainable, and we need to dig deep to understand all the factors involved. First, we must address the need for increased funding for protective gear, training, and wages. It is unacceptable that we pay our caregivers the same or less per hour than the average retail store employee. As Brendan Williams, president/CEO of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, said recently, “why work in a nursing home if Medicaid reimbursement forces you into poverty?”
Second, we need our elected officials to convene a task force, made up at least partially of knowledgeable caregiving specialists, to study the short- and long-term effects this pandemic is having on our caregivers. The coronavirus is causing talented professionals to leave their jobs, and you can bet it is also deterring others who might have been considering a career working in a long-term care facility. The time to address this problem is now, and not when our communities no longer have the staff to continue caring for our seniors.
Finally, we recommend full support for our eldercare communities as they recover and reexamine their best practices for future healthcare emergencies. This will require dedicated funding to help care communities perform structural changes to better protect their residents and staff. Our caregivers deserve to work in an environment where they can focus on their daily tasks without fearing for their own safety.
The holidays are a time to count our blessings and cherish our loved ones. This year, we must also endeavor to show our appreciation for caregivers by taking the necessary steps to improve their daily lives. Do it for them and their families, and for the vulnerable seniors who require the services our caregivers provide.