The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Kathryn Harnish lives in Houlton. She plans to return to the workforce as an elder abuse advocate later this month.
Last year, I began my journey as an unpaid caregiver when my 82-year-old father’s liver failed him. Over the course of 10 days in the ICU at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, I got a crash course in critical caregiving.
While my dad was at the hospital, I talked with others who were visiting aging relatives. Many had to make similar decisions about what was best for their loved ones, often without the support and resources that my family was fortunate enough to have.
I remember sitting beside my dad and hearing one family’s worries through the curtain separating hospital beds. Their father was experiencing significant cognitive decline, and they couldn’t find home-based care for him.
I’d see a constant flow of people through the consultation rooms of the ICU and the struggles of relatives who sat with their family member’s doctors. Many families looked defeated: Their loved ones could not be released from the hospital without full-time home care.
I realize just how lucky my family and I were. When it became clear that my dad would need full-time assistance at home, I was able to step in, knowing that our country’s broken home care system might not be able to provide the care he needed. The software company for which I worked had just downsized, and I had lost my job. But I had enough in savings and severance to hold me over while I cared for my parents.
Many people need to continue their careers and depend on professional home care workers to help care for their aging parents. Unfortunately, the home care industry is so underfunded and understaffed that it’s almost impossible to find and retain quality home care workers.
In Maine especially, there simply aren’t enough caregivers to meet the demand — particularly in rural areas like mine. In February of this year, 9,443 hours of approved personal support care went undelivered to 857 people, including 538 older Mainers who received no services at all.
The waitlist has grown so long that more people are waiting for home care services than are currently receiving them. Maine ranks 44th in the country for accessibility and affordability of long-term services and supports. This will only worsen. Maine now has a 3 percent annual growth rate of people 65 and older, the second largest of any state in the nation.
I’m heartened by President Joe Biden’s effort to include $400 billion for home care in his economic agenda. This will improve pay, benefits, and training for professional home care workers. I’m grateful to Sen. Angus King for his support for these improvements, and respectfully urge Sen. Susan Collins to do the same: It’s vital to the health of Maine’s families and the state’s care economy.
Home care is extremely difficult, both physically and emotionally. Caregiving for my parents was the most taxing work I’ve ever done. From the time my father fell ill until his death this past February, I spent countless hours providing care for him while also supporting my mother, whose severe arthritis in her hips and knees was limiting her mobility.
We all want to be sure that our parents age well. I’m grateful that I was able to address my parents’ needs without making radical compromises in other areas of my life. No one should be forced into life-altering decisions simply because our society won’t invest appropriately in the amazing women and men who do the hard work of caregiving.