The financial press has no shortage of news about upward trends in health care employment, largely related to the stream of baby boomers who are now hitting retirement age -- a stream that will soon turn into a flood.
But many of those boomers who lost jobs in the Great Recession are finding new ones in health care. And one of the fastest-growing professions across the country is home health aide.
"We have a lot of people who are looking for less physically demanding work," said Michael Crum, president of Home Instead, a senior care provider in Whitehall Township. "Maybe they worked at a hospital or nursing home. It's the same type of work, but less physically demanding. Here, they're taking care of one patient at a time. It's generally less physically demanding."
Crum said his biggest challenge is finding enough reliable, certified aides. "Getting enough clients usually is not the issue," he said.
The market is responding to the demand. Civic Ventures, a think tank on boomers, work and social purpose, and the MetLife Foundation have teamed up to fill the gap locally. The partnership funded a program last year at Northampton Community College to provide a free home health aide certification course for people over 50. Thirty-four people took the course, all passed and half found jobs within a few weeks, according to Judith Rex, director of NCC's Center for Healthcare Education.
They included: Angelika Kennerly of Whitehall, an Austrian immigrant who was a nurse in her homeland but is unlicensed here; Linda Bargiel of Bangor, who once owned a retail store and became unemployed when her office job disappeared; Marie Daud of Easton, who put aside her advanced degree 14 years ago to raise a family; and Diana Jimenez of Roseto, who left her job to take care of her infirm in-laws.
They said their prior employment and life experience made them well-suited for the field.
Getting to the point where they can become certified -- Medicare will only reimburse a client if the caregiver has state certification -- means older workers have to begin again. They need to go back to school, accept that they're entering a low-paying field and hustle their way to a job that will provide health benefits.
The pay is an issue. Home health workers make about $8-$11 an hour, Rex said. "You don't go into it for the money," she said.
With the wisdom of age, however, the aides say they understand that education is the first step in re-establishing their careers. "I practice what I preach," said 72-year-old Juanita Reyes of Easton. For Reyes, her budding home health aide career follows a path dotted with jobs as a textile worker, dental hygienist and counselor, each change requiring retraining to help "reinvent" herself.
Home health aides, of course, do not need to be experienced workers. In fact, younger women with children would find the field desirable, Crum said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, home health aide jobs will increase by 50 percent to about 1.4 million jobs by 2018. Add personal and home care aides, an uncertified sub-group of aides, and that's 2.6 million new positions.
As news stories have pointed out, there will be plenty of patients for Pennsylvania's home health aides to oversee. The state Department of Aging says the percentage of people 65 and older in Pennsylvania is second only to Florida. By 2020, it says, the percentage of Pennsylvanians 60 or older will be a quarter of the state's population.
A generation ago, Crum said, it was fairly common for the elderly to enter a nursing home once they were no longer able to care for themselves. Given the medical expertise and Medicare funding at the time, he said, that nursing home stay usually became the client's last home. Now, however, nursing homes often are stopovers for people who need a higher level of care, before they can return to their homes.
Clients can live with dignity in their own homes for years thereafter, which is when aides say the true benefits of their job materialize.
Jimenez, for instance, has the satisfaction of being able to help her mother-in-law, who is suffering with Alzheimer's disease, continue to function, rather than simply receive care. "She participates in her daily life," Jimenez said.
Being able to work on such a close personal level with clients, and knowing that families are benefiting, is deeply fulfilling, said Bargiel, who got a job with RX Home Care in Bangor. "Well, I actually fell in love with some of my clients," she said. "The
bond with these people is wonderful."