As America continues to age, the need for personal care or home health aides is shifting into high gear, with no signs of slowing down. One big reason: There are 73 million baby boomers, the largest living adult population at about 25 percent, and 10,000 of them turn 65 and retire each day.

As Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, continue to age, they are opting for in-home care instead of moving into assisted-living facilities or nursing homes. That’s one reason why personal care aides are the fastest-growing job in Polk County, increasing 515 percent from 200 in 2009 to 1,230 in 2018.

About 25 percent of the population in Polk is age 65 or older, according to Steve Bissonnette, president of Volunteers In Service to the Elderly (VISTE), which provides food for some 4,300 seniors in the Lakeland area who are at least age 70. Right now, the nonprofit brings food to two people who are 105 years old.

Personal care aides help seniors in their homes, doing chores, cooking, running errands and keeping them company.

Need for Talent

Kari Gomez, the owner of Home Instead Senior Care, said she gets 15 to 20 inquiries a week from people looking for home health care assistance. And there are not enough aides in a highly competitive market.

“We are competing with hospitals, nursing homes, all tapping into the same talent pool. As people stay home longer, higher acuity caregivers are the ones that are really needed.”

Local websites recruiting for aides look for these requirements:

  • Passing background, drug and motor vehicle checks.
  • Having a valid driver’s license and insurance.
  • Knowing CPR.
  • Treating seniors with dignity and respect.
*Some agencies will hire only people who are licensed and certified.

Home health aides and certified nursing assistants make an average of about $11.50 an hour, or $23,000 a year, according to a variety of websites offering salary information.

Working to help address this critical talent need, both Ridge and Traviss Technical Colleges in Polk County offer degrees and courses related to the home health care field, including patient care technician programs and CNA prep courses.

Gomez said she looks for flexibility in aides.

“We’re 24/7/365. Our scheduling is based on the client, not like a hospital that has three shifts,” she said, adding that interpersonal skills, strong work values and experience beyond working with a loved one are beneficial.

These days, seniors are well versed in different payment methods, insurance and veterans’ benefits that they can potentially use to stay at home longer, she said. Her clients average 12 to 20 hours a week, enough to keep them at home, she said.

“It’s a misnomer that they need 24-hour care. We sit down and chat with clients to find out their needs. We don’t want a caregiver to sit on the couch and look at you.”

Her aides get satisfaction from the one-on-one time they share with their clients.

“They walk away saying, ‘I was able to take Mrs. Smith out for a walk around the lake, make that family recipe, drive her to do her grocery shopping.’ It gives the family peace of mind that they are able to help fulfill mom or dad’s wishes to stay home.”

It’s about the changing face of aging, Gomez said. “What does that look like? It’s not about changing your address or lifestyle but maintaining your independence.”

Making a Difference

Bissonnette said it’s also about trying to reduce the feeling of social isolation.  “There’s a growing body of literature that talks about the potential ills of social isolation, at any age, but particularly as people age into older years. When you start to get to 80, 90, 100 years old, the world around you starts to get smaller. You lose the ability to drive, get out as much. They don’t have as many friends come over because they don’t have as many friends.”

Social isolation has a correlation to dementia, disorientation and falls, he said.

“As your hearing and sight start to diminish, you are less comfortable going out. That leads to a narrowly defined life experience. You’re hungry for someone else to talk to, be there, engage with at some level.”

There’s also an emotional, psychological side: Your body knows the environment you live in. “The unknown is kind of frightening,” Bissonnette said. “Your body has muscle memory — where the light switch is, how many steps is it to the bathroom, etc. If you move, there’s a sense of disorientation, even if it’s a neater, cleaner, safer environment.”

Bissonnette relayed a story about a client who told him a volunteer called her once a week. “She had difficulties getting out and about. But between 9 and 10 a.m. on Tuesdays, the volunteer would call. She got up early, showered, did her hair, put on her Sunday dress, lipstick — in anticipation of a phone call. It meant that much to her to have that conversation.”

When the volunteer no longer could do it, the woman stepped up and connected with others they used to call.

“It’s a difference between living an engaged life and just existing. It’s a fine line. They know someone will call and check on them. It’s a safety net. It’s a difference between living an engaged life and just existing. It’s a fine line,” he said.