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McLean County Senior Care Advocates Say Worker Shortage Is Critical

Woman with microphone standing turned to woman seated as part of a pael
Colleen Reynolds
McLean County League of Women Voters Moderator Laurie Bergner introduces Barb Nathan, CEO of Westminster Village Retirement Community, at Monday night's "Aging in Mclean County" panel discussion.

Medical and social service providers for McLean County’s older residents say many people over 55 will struggle far more than their parents because they’ll live longer but with fewer resources to support basic needs.

During a McLean County League of Women Voters panel, “Aging in McLean County” Monday night, Westminster Village Retirement Community CEO Barb Nathan said the shortage of long-term care workers is growing to a near crisis level as 10,000 Baby Boomers a day turn 65. And Nathan said other factors could negatively impact the senior care workforce.

"We have fewer and fewer people looking for jobs."

“The rising of the minimum wage is going to tax especially those federally funded programs that if there’s not an additional appropriation, there’ll be fewer people served,” she told an audience at the retirement community which hosted the League forum.

Nathan also pointed out it appears Illinois could be headed toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and other states that have done so have struggled to keep senior care employees because they are not passing drug tests.

“This is a major, major issue for skilled nursing and other licensed facilities because we have to drug test,” said Nathan.

She added, “In some states, they’re no longer drug testing in order to find people to work.” However, according to Nathan, the federal government still considers marijuana illegal and therefore facilities not testing could put federal reimbursement in jeopardy.

Need Immigrants To Fill Jobs

“We have fewer and fewer people looking for jobs,” Nathan declared in outlining yet another industry hiring challenge.

She said the population of high school and college-age students who would be filling certified nursing assistant and dining room server positions is dropping. In fact, Nathan said immigrants now make up 25 percent of the senior care workforce in this country.

“And yet there is a barrier now to increasing that pool," she said.

Nathan was part of a Washington lobbying trip last week by the members of LeadingAge, a group representing nonprofit senior support service organizations pushing for new legislation to create a guest worker program to allow immigrants to fill senior care openings.

LeadingAge says thousands of people from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, and other countries face deportation due to the termination of the temporary protected immigration status under which they have lived and worked in the United States for many years. Nathan says many of those foreign-born, senior care workers are privately employed by families.

“The reality is when you can’t find people for the home setting in terms of care-giving some people are going to end up in a nursing home, if you can find it, that accepts Medicaid and that’s a much higher cost of care.

Making The Case For Increased Funding

Susan Real, executive director of the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging, said by 2030, one in four Illinoisans will be 60 or older and yet legislatively, very little attention has been paid to planning for the financial, medial and social supports to ensure older adults will have quality of life.

Real believes data collection and partnering with universities for research will be helpful to show funding programs like meal delivery and home care services are most cost-effective because they prevent having to deliver more costly care. She said showing outcomes of evidence-based programs will be needed to convince lawmakers, especially those in Washington, that they need to increase funding to meet the demands of the expanding 55-plus population and their caregivers.

“Many of these legislators in Washington, D.C., as well as in Springfield are becoming caregivers themselves,” Real shared as she presented some optimism about chances for increased government funding to meet growing demand for services.

“They’re seeing the aging process for themselves and that is also what I think resonates with them when we come with our ask and then produce the results of that funding.”

More funding for community-based education can also help prevent what Nathan called “the big three” issues impacting older adults: falls, urinary tract infections, and dehydration. McLean County Coroner Kathy Yoder stepped up from the audience to disclose that in 2017, 49 residents died from fall-related injuries or complications and she said, “In 2018, we had many (fall-related) deaths as well.”

The ARC Recreation and Community Center in Normal hosts educational programs, including sessions about fall prevention. Operations Director Rick Lewis, who started as a volunteer, said the center is already not large enough to meet demand. It is averaging 700 users a day and has total membership of nearly 4,000.

Lewis said he regularly has to turn away residents who are not yet 55 but who want to participate in the center’s wide range of activities and who might also be looking for what Lewis needed after retiring from Illinois State University at 54—a new identity and as he put it, “a new tribe.”

You can also listen to a full interview with Nathan:

GLT's full interview with Barb Nathan.

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