MINNEAPOLIS — There’s no such thing as a typical workday for Ethel Muchlinski, 60, a care manager at Parkshore Senior Campus in St. Louis Park, Mo. On a Thursday morning last summer, Muchlinski kicked off her shift by checking on a 94-year-old resident, one of the staff’s favorites. The popular resident was so sick she had everyone worried and upset that morning. After ordering painkillers and offering comforting words, Muchlinski moved on to another resident, also in his 90s, who was recovering from ear surgery. She cleaned his wound and left instructions with his adult son. Then she zipped down the hall to yet another appointment: Her weekly chitchat with a sharp 95-year-old who favors current events over talk of any ailments.
An energetic woman with a trim build, Muchlinski made the obvious observation as she sped between patients: “You have to be physically fit for this job.” It also helps to have a certain amount of life experience, perhaps as a caregiver for a parent or spouse. “The successful ones are older,” observed Muchlinski of her coworkers. In fact, three of the four care managers in Muchlinski’s office are 55 and older.
Muchlinski and her coworkers share something more: They took to working with seniors late in their careers, usually past the age of 50. A registered nurse, Muchlinski launched her own career in pediatrics, where she worked for 20 years. She later ascended to an executive-level position with a local health care company. “That was a job that got my kids through college and paid for the weddings,” she explained. Then the recession hit and her employer opted for downsizing. For the first time in her adult life, Muchlinski found herself unemployed at the age of 56.
So she spent some time reassessing her passions and her interests. She knew she wanted to return to patient care. Lucky for Muchlinski, she quickly landed a new position with Lifesprk, formerly AgeWell, an Edina-based company specializing in “life care management” for older adults (Lifesprk employees are responsible for care at the Parkshore Senior Campus). Muchlinski noted that Lifesprk also employs activities directors and home health aides, positions that don’t require degrees like hers. Muchlinski stressed that “you don’t have to be a nurse to do this work.”
Thanks to an aging population, home health aides and personal care attendants are two of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of home health aides is expected to grow a whopping 69 percent from 2010 to 2020. At the same time, labor experts have sounded the alarms about the coming shortage of long-term care workers.
“We have more demand than we have staff,” confirmed Kathy Lucas, president of Fairview Home Care and Hospice. The organization can only grow as fast as its workforce, she explained. “So we’re always looking for nurses,” continued Lucas. She also has an ongoing need for home health aides, who require less education and experience than nurses. To land one of these positions, Lucas suggests “six months of supervised experience in a nursing home, hospital or group home.”
By some accounts, the opportunity is even richer for 50-plus men. “We need a fair amount of male caregivers,” said Paul R. Blom, owner and CEO of Bloomington, Minn.-based Right At Home, which provides personal services like companionship and homemaking for seniors.
Whenever possible, Lucas and Blom both prefer to hire older workers. Clients want “a caregiver more closely associated with their generation,” asserted Blom. Lucas employs plenty of high-quality younger caregivers, but ventured that older adults have “more compassion and empathy for the people (they’re) dealing with.”
Nevertheless, Lucas and Blom have faced an uphill battle in their recruitment efforts, because their affections aren’t always returned by the 50-plus workforce. According to a report from AARP, only 17 percent of 50-plus workers are interested in what the organization dubbed “work with older people.” Many others discover, sometimes too late, that in-home care isn’t “an easy retirement job,” observed Lucas.
Muchlinski understands the reservations of her 50-plus peers. “I think it’s fear that keeps people away,” she said. She still thinks in-home senior care makes for a fulfilling second career. In a world obsessed with youth, in-home care is the rare industry where maturity is valued, even demanded. Plus, you won’t have bosses constantly barking orders. “You get to work individually, which most older workers like,” remarked Muchlinski. “There’s no one micromanaging us.”