On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, it’s lunchtime and Maggie Valente is trying to open a package of sliced cheese.
“Hm,” she murmurs. “I don’t have a lot of feeling in my fingers. They’re not strong anymore.”
Valente is 79, a grandmother and a great grandmother. She’s also the paid caregiver to Carl and Joan Sindermann, both 91.
“So they tell me anyway,” Carl Sindermann jokes.
The Sindermanns were born a week apart in the same hospital in 1922. They both served in World War II; he was awarded a Bronze Star. Their caregiver worked for the Air Force during the Korean War. Between the war stories, the kids, and the grandkids, they’ve got lots to talk about.
“The good old days,” says Maggie Valente.
“Yeah the good old days,” Joan Sindermann echoes.
Maggie Valente cooks meals, helps Mrs. Sindermann dress, watches their medication, and does light housekeeping 40 hours a week in their home. She provides relief for the couple’s son. They all love her.
“Well, she’s almost a family member, of course,” says Carl Sindermann. “The only difference being we can pay her. That’s about the only difference.”
The direct care field is growing as quickly as the country is aging. The number of direct care workers over age 55 is expected to increase by 70 percent over the next decade, to well more than a million people. Older workers are already nearly a quarter of the direct care workforce, and more than a million new direct care jobs are expected by 2022.
While some caregivers are simply aging in the job, other older people are stepping in to fill the need. Most older workers are still clustered between the ages of 55 and 65.
Valente, however, became a caregiver two years ago, at age 77. Her daughter has a chronic illness and needs help paying for medicine.
“Dunkin’ Donuts called me, they’d accepted my application, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, this is not what I want to do.’ And then Home Instead had an ad in the paper,” Valente says.
Jenna Marchi owns the Home Instead Senior Care franchise there in Easton, Maryland. She says almost half her caregivers are over 51. She says there are advantages to older workers, like flexible hours, a willingness to work part time, and life experience.
“Especially with dementia,” Marchi says. “You know, you want to live in that moment with that person. So if they’re living in a moment from 50 years ago, a more mature caregiver can relate to them.”
Abby Marquand, the associate director of policy research at PHI, a nonprofit that tries to improve the quality of direct care jobs, says while those who care for the elderly are themselves graying, they face the same low wages as younger home care workers.
“These are pretty poor-quality jobs generally speaking,” she says. “We’re talking about near-poverty-level wages, very few employment benefits like employer-sponsored health insurance or paid sick leave, and really high rates of injury.”
Some direct care workers are certified nursing assistants. They tend to work in nursing homes, where injury rates are higher. But most older caregivers work in private homes, which require less training. The median wage for a home caregiver like Valente is about $10 an hour.
“And actually, more than half of these workers are relying on some form of public assistance for their households, so they rely on Medicaid themselves, or food stamps,” says Marquand.
The Home Instead agency in Easton doesn’t offer health insurance. Maggie Valente uses Medicare and buys a $300 dollar a month supplemental. She says she’s better able to support her daughter now. And she’s so grateful to have landed with the Sindermanns. But she acknowledges there are challenges.
“She fell down one morning,” she says, referring to Mrs. Sindermann. “And it’s like the rules with Home Instead, you don’t pick ‘em up. I says, ‘I can’t pick you up, you’re gonna have to crawl into the living room.’ And by the time she got back crawling, looked like a crab, we were both laughing so hard.”
Valente says she worries about the Sindermanns when she’s not there.
“I was glad that when I felt I needed to continue working that I found what I wanted to do,” she says.