Here’s a Proven Strategy for Winning This War and Protecting Our Elders

Many in the press have drawn the analogy of fighting COVID-19 to that of fighting a war. It’s true: we need front-line heroes who run into the fire to protect the lives of fellow citizens, particularly those most at risk in each battle. The greatest percentage of deaths has been among our vulnerable elders, and we need engaged workers on the front lines focused on protecting and caring for them. In other words, they are the secret to keeping our elders safe and out of overwhelmed hospitals.

With COVID-19 looming as a series of battles lasting likely two or more years and with inevitable future pandemics, we urge policymakers to learn lessons from what has worked to find, identify and invest in passionate individuals willing to sign up to serve in this war.

First, we have incredible front-line staff working in senior care. However, we do not have enough of them. Caregivers for our nation’s elders have a different, purpose-driven mindset. Activated Insights has surveyed over 350,000 U.S. senior care employees in the past year. Compared to non-caregivers, the nearly 100,000 nursing aides and nurses, from the newly minted employees to those with 20+ years of experience, report that “my work has special meaning: this is ‘not just a job.'” That said, even before the pandemic, the senior care sector struggled with a caregiver shortage. With COVID-19-driven staffing needs, the shortage is exacerbated.

Second, data shows that when we hire and invest in these individuals, they are even more engaged. Kentucky-based Trilogy Health Services, which runs one of the largest employer-based healthcare apprenticeship program in the United States, cites numerous benefits of its program. Todd Schmiedeler, Trilogy’s Senior Vice President of Workforce Development, says, “We have found that our staff who enroll in and complete specialized apprenticeships such as geriatric caregiving, preceptor and qualified medication aides report higher willingness to ‘give extra to get the job done’ and are more likely to ‘look forward to coming to work here.’” He also reports that the effect seems to be magnified: Trilogy’s other front-line staff, such as dietary workers who are given apprenticeship opportunities, also report higher engagement, often in very challenging yet critical environments.

Lastly, this is not a new concept: States ranging from Ohio to Kentucky to California have sponsored very successful apprenticeship programs. Recently, the Department of Labor awarded a grant of just under $6 million to train 7,239 apprentices in areas such as caregiving and nursing. At $830 per apprentice, this investment is a bargain compared to recent per capita federal stimulus funding programs, especially as these purpose-driven individuals can learn and apprentice to fill much-needed job vacancies in less than three months. However, this example is one of the few federal grants targeted towards hiring and training more front-line healthcare workers. While many providers can and do offer training, the structure offered by a government-supported apprenticeship programs is critical.

As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell encourages Congress to pass another stimulus bill, identifying and investing in our front-line health care heroes who protect our nation’s elders offers not only “bang for the buck” benefits but also fills a huge gap in the system.

There is a legion of passionate, purpose-driven individuals putting up their hands to fight this war – let’s learn from history and the data on what works to identify and invest in them.

Robert Kramer is president of Nexus Insights, an advisory firm which cultivates insights and new models for aging services, and is also the founder and strategic adviser to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care.

Dr. Jacquelyn Kung is the CEO of Activated Insights, the senior care group of Great Place to Work Institute; she previously managed a senior care health system outside Washington, D.C., and was the U.S. long-term care expert at McKinsey & Company.

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