‘We are stuck’: Franklin County residents cope with long wait lists for home health aides

  • Judy and Peter Vearling on their back porch in Northfield. Judy suffers from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

  • Judy and Peter Vearling on their back porch in Northfield. Judy suffers from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer
Published: 7/25/2022 5:43:39 PM

Although the shortage of home health aides has been a growing problem for years, it has only become more severe as the country faces rapid inflation and employee shortages across the board. As a result, a growing number of Franklin County residents are left grappling with how best to care for their loved ones.

The waitlist at LifePath — a Greenfield-based nonprofit that provides resources for seniors and people with disabilities — to receive help from a home health aide has more than 170 people on it. Before the pandemic, the waitlist never included more than 10 or 15 requests at a time, according to Director of Client Services Diane Robie.

The lack of home health aides is not just a Franklin County issue. Paula Nicholson, administrator at Catholic Charities, a Springfield-based company that contracts home health aides, said Massachusetts has more than 5,000 people on waiting lists for care.

LifePath’s role is to contract out to different vendors. The organization provides an evaluation and assessment of an individual’s needs and then seeks out a vendor who can provide those services. Robie explained these contracted vendors have not been able to hire enough people to fill the needed positions.

Nicholson said Catholic Charities has raised its base pay in recent months and is also starting a bonus system for people who serve more rural areas like Franklin County. Molly Chambers, who runs a support group through LifePath, explained it is more difficult to find home health aides in rural areas.

Nicholson also noted the companies that hire aides are no longer competing with each other; instead, they are working together to try to supply workers to trim the long wait list.

Northfield resident Lynn Bassett has attempted to find help for her elderly parents for two years, going through various organizations as well as attempting to hire privately. She is still seeking assistance, she said, and shared her experience of difficulties finding someone who will work in a more rural area.

“We found people to help who live in Amherst,” Bassett said, “but they didn’t want to come all the way to Northfield for work.”

Bassett and her sister had hoped to spend their retirement relaxing, but are now caring for their parents due to the lack of help available.

“We have the funds to pay, they just don’t have the people,” she said.

Chambers explained that people would rather age in place, which the home health aide shortage is making more difficult to do.

“They are more comfortable and have memories in their homes,” she said.

Along with contacting LifePath and other organizations such as Catholic Charities, Bassett turned to networking and using the internet to hire help directly.

“The organizations are supposed to be doing the work for us,” she said, “but now we are doing the legwork.”

Northfield resident Peter Vearling is in a similar situation with his wife, Judy, who has late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he had hired three aides. Now he has only one aide because the other workers are too busy.

Along with the difficulties posed by the worker shortage, Vearling explained the rates to pay for help are far more than he can afford.

“Us middle-class people go through all of our life savings in order to get help,” he said.

Vearling has hired people privately to lower the cost.

“I want to do things for myself, but I also want my wife taken care of,” Vearling said. “Now we are stuck.”

Vearling said he has considered placing Judy in a nursing home, but he explained the cost can be upward of $14,000 per month, and nursing homes are also suffering from staffing shortages.

LifePath hopes to find some solutions to the service shortage. The nonprofit accepts volunteers to go grocery shopping on elders’ behalf and is starting new programs for seniors. For example, in September, LifePath will launch a home-share program. Seniors in larger homes can provide housing for people in exchange for negotiated care, as well as rent.

“Because of worker shortages, we can’t find anyone to provide care,” said LifePath’s Associate Director of Client Services Charity Day, “and the cost of housing is so high, this is a good fit.”

Day also said LifePath is able to provide a stipend for family members and other people who are caring for the elderly in their homes. However, this program only supports people on MassHealth.

While these LifePath programs will not solve the problem of the massive waitlist, they will likely reduce it.

“It is going to take systemic change in the way we create and value these roles as caregivers for this problem to be solved,” Robie said.

Contact Bella Levavi at blevavi@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.


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