There is a weight to labor, and a weight to love. There is a physical heaviness in helping someone out of bed, in walking them together-stepped to the bathroom, in changing them, in helping them eat. There is even a soft weight in stroking their hair as they fall asleep, and a soul’s weight in talking to them through their day and easing fear. Presence, itself, has a weight. It is tangible and meaningful.
This weight, for caregivers of older adults, is an act of love, but it is also hard work. The life of a caregiver can be a difficult and challenging one, filled with emotional ups and heartbreaking lows. It is vitally important work, and the need for it is growing. As our nation ages, the work that caregivers do in the Bay Area and around the country grows even more important. It takes on even more weight.
That’s why we couldn’t be more proud that New York Times Magazine profiled Ofelia Bersabe, an Institute on Aging-connected caregiver who lives in Santa Clara. Bersabe was featured in their sprawling “The Future of Work” series, in an article about The Workers: real people with real jobs in an uncertain, unsteady, and fluctuating economy.
But it is with certainty that people will age. It is with certainty that they will need help to age in place, to embrace the adventures that life still brings, and to enjoy the dignity of living at home. And for that, they will need caregivers like Ofelia. They will need people who are willing to carry that weight.
Ofelia Bersabe and the Role of a Caregiver
When we think of caregivers, we don’t always think of someone like Ofelia. At 69, she is closing in on an age when many people themselves begin to need help. But caregiving wasn’t her first calling. She worked at an electronics company for over 20 years before being let go in the aftermath of the 2008 market collapse. That same year, her mother died. Instead of letting these dual shocks drag her down, she used her life experiences to make sure older adults had the care, the support, they needed.
She became a home health aide, and currently has two clients. She works 65-hour weeks, with five 12-14 hour night shifts. One of her clients is more self-sufficient, so she offers reminders to take medicine, cleans up, and is mostly there for companionship. The other she bathes, dresses, changes diapers, and everything else needed. While these may seem like very different roles, and in terms of day-to-day care, they’re both vitally important.
Companionship isn’t just “being there.” It’s about understanding the person for whom you are caring. It’s about listening to their life. In that role, the caregiver is a confessor and a confidant; they are friend and family. And this isn’t a luxury. Having a companion helps to prevent loneliness, which can compound into deeper physical suffering and mental health disorders, even suicide.
The work Ofelia does with compassion and grace for her client who suffers from dementia allows the client to live without shame. For many dependent older adults, life can seem filled with indignity, which includes their mental outlook. The right caregiver can help dispel that, and can help them lead lives that are as full as possible, without the burden of shame.
These are different types of care, but they are all on the same continuum. They are all about how much Ofelia cares for them, and she will do so as long as she can, because it’s a labor of love. As she told The Times, she “expects to work through her 70s and 80s and maybe even into her 90s. ‘I’ll work as long as I can stand on my own two legs,’ she said. ‘As long as I can drive and walk and God permits me, I’ll enjoy the job I love.’”
Becoming a Caregiver
Being a professional caregiver is hard work, to be sure. It is also incredibly rewarding, and not just in the spiritual sense. At least in California, there are workplace protections for caregivers. Ofelia is part of the Service Employees International Union, which guarantees her a living wage and regular raises.
The field is growing. By 2024, the nation is expected to add another 380,000 home health aides. In California, the home health field is almost 7% of the total workforce. And as Boomers retire and age, that will only increase.
To become a home health aide in California, you must:
- Complete at least 75 hours of training, which can be done at a community college or through a private school
- Pass a criminal background check (exclusions here)
- Complete the California Department of Health Certification
Many of the private schools are low-cost, and financial aide is available for people who want to join this needed field. Of course, for those who want to help seniors, but not as a career, IOA also offers many opportunities for volunteers.
Ofelia knows she is doing something that matters. Not every life will have stories written in newspapers about it. But every life is its own story. And with her work, with her love, Ofelia and other caregivers are part of someone else’s epic. They make that story better at some of its hardest moments. They fill that heaviness with light.
Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources to help older adults and their caregivers live independently, with dignity and adventure. Get in touch with us today to learn more.