It was the nightly routine of reflexology foot massages that my mother most relished.
Her tirelessly cheerful home health aide, Mary McLendon, would serve her delicious home-cooked dinners before easing my mother into her reclining chair to tenderly knead her arches and soles. The two of them would then talk as confidantes about their lives, hopes and fears while watching Wheel of Fortune.
During a difficult year in which my mother, Jeanette Gilbert, had multiple hospitalizations for falls that would eventually force her to move from her apartment to a nursing home, Mary’s care and their conversations were a salve to soothe the growing despair.
It wasn’t just my mother who was so touched by their relationship. Two years after saying goodbye to us — and seven months after my mother died — Mary called me out of the blue to share her thoughts about my mother. “She was my best friend,” Mary said.
As my mother’s former primary caregiver, I am extremely grateful that Mary came into our lives. We tried out other home health aides who would arrive late and then spend hours playing on their phones rather than attending to my mother’s needs. Their listlessness and distraction made me anxious about relying on them.
But with Mary, I quickly developed complete trust. She arrived on time, smiling, and with a game plan for keeping my mother entertained. She became an indispensable adviser to me, too, writing her insights each day about my mother’s sleep, appetite and state of mind in a lined notebook she left on the dining room table.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 (the most recent data available) there were nearly 3.5 million home health and personal care aides tending to older Americans and those with disabilities. For their hard work, they made a modest $13.02 an hour on average, or a little more than $27,000 a year if doing the job full time.
The good they can do, though, is priceless. A loving, capable aide is often the difference between a successful and failing caregiving plan.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a Mary or the kind of friendship that she and my mother formed. But there are ways that family caregivers can find the right aides for their loved ones and foster the most supportive relationships. Here are some ideas.
Insist on consistency
Some home health care agencies make a point of sending one aide on a regular basis to work with a care recipient. Others send different aides for different shifts, based on their staffing needs but not necessarily on the best interests of caregiving families.